A few years back, I was standing with a colleague at Antone's in Austin, Texas -- the old location, not the new and comparatively upscale club that's now in the heart of downtown -- and we were on the dance floor, doing that awkward white-guy wiggle -- completely agog at the singular racket that was emanating from the tiny stage not 5 feet in front of us. Bluesman Junior Kimbrough was holding forth with his small combo, playing what amounted to a droning one-chord stomp interspersed with vocal moans and shrieks that spoke of -- well, who knew exactly what?
But the message the music conveyed was clear -- these were songs about desire, naked need. About being done wrong and doing wrong yourself, and about the sort of sex that's only dirty because it's done absolutely right. Never mind that Kimbrough was old, frail and nearly toothless and, at that point, didn't have much time left on the planet. He was a fairly large man, though between songs he seemed kind of small, confined as he was to playing while seated on a metal folding chair. When the music kicked in, however, on that particular night, Junior Kimbrough was livin' large.
"Man," my friend said finally. "This is fucking music."
That it was. I was familiar with Kimbrough's 1997 album All Night Long, which was the bluesman's first full-length recording despite a lifetime of making music in the rough-and-tumble juke joints of Mississippi (including one that was his own). The disc had given me a feel for Kimbrough's primal, raw-boned brand of blues, which was novel and exciting to listen to in the comfort of my home. But experiencing it in person was something else again. I can't remember ever being so bowled over by a blues performance, unless it was in admiration of someone's technical flash, à la Stevie Ray Vaughan, or the result of seeing a historical blues figure whom I respected but had never been able to see in his or her prime and knew that I should before it was too late. Kimbrough's performance ran completely counter to conventional wisdom. To him, music was feeling, not flash, and it damn sure wasn't a precious flower that needed to be preserved for academic study, which is how most folks treat the blues these days.
Junior didn't give a shit about all that -- he was just rockin'.
Since that time, Kimbrough himself has given up the ghost, alas, and his juke joint mysteriously burned to the ground. But his spirit of hard, nasty, give-a-fuck blues is alive and well on the Fat Possum label, home to Kimbrough's recordings, as well as those of R.L. Burnside, whose albums I'm more ambivalent about because of the involvement of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The last thing a guy like Burnside needs, by my way of thinking, is being turned into an avant-garde flavor-of-the-moment by and for alt-rock's hipoisie, which is what Spencer and his cohorts have done for/to Burnside by radically remixing some of his songs.
Still, Fat Possum also boasts the works of T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour and Paul "Wine" Jones, all of whom (along with young blues postmodernist Bob Log III), have banded together for the most recent edition of the Fat Possum Blues Caravan, which kicks off its nationwide tour at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room on Wednesday, Aug. 30. It's one of the can't-miss shows of the year.
Ford is the sort of bluesman who, if he didn't exist, seems as if he could almost be made up by a hack novelist. He's been to prison, naturally -- in his case, for stabbing a man to death in a barroom brawl. He's illiterate, been in and out of jail for most of his life and has, by his own count, 26 children by five women. And he never picked up a guitar until he was 58 years old (though his age, now approximately 80 years, is a guess at best). Wife No. 5, the story goes, had bought him a guitar as a present, and the thing sat gathering dust until she took off. Ford got himself a gallon of moonshine, picked up the guitar and taught himself to play. That sounds right out of central casting but may well be true, and, if nothing else, the legend looks good on him.
Ford's hard, cutting brand of blues is about as elemental as music gets. Made with his own guitar and the clatterings of a drummer known only as Spam (I'm guessing it's for his culinary habits, not his propensity for sending e-mail, but who knows?) Ford's songs are not so much slices as slashes of life. On his albums Pee-Wee Get My Gun, You Better Keep Still and the recent She Ain't None of Your'n -- the titles themselves speak of jealousy, rage, and impending violence -- he sings about scenes from his long and storied life: women he's had, or wanted but couldn't have; jobs he's worked at; ass-whuppings he's delivered. But this is no joke, made up just for white-boy punk-rock consumption (Fat Possum is, after all, distributed under the auspices of Epitaph Records). He means it. Ford's songs have endured remixing, notably "Pop Pop Pop" on You Better Keep Still, and you can be damn sure that if, like I do, Ford thought the track made him sound foolish, he'd probably pull a knife on everyone involved.
Robert Belfour's music represents quite a departure for Fat Possum in that his debut album, What's Wrong With You, is, with the exception of the opening track, a solo acoustic recording. Self-taught as a guitarist, the 60-year-old Belfour plays the same type of droning blues as his friend Kimbrough, but the absence of a band or electric instruments make tunes like "Black Mattie" and "Done Got Old" seem even more intense, hypnotic and obsessive. Now retired after 35 years in the construction business (his job was pouring concrete), Belfour is at last able to pursue music full-time, and his retirement's loss is our gain. What's Wrong With You is one of the best albums of the year.
At 53, Paul "Wine" Jones represents a younger generation of bluesmen for Fat Possum. His albums Mule and Pucker Up Buttercup reveal songs nearly as primitive as those of Ford -- Jones, too, is backed only by a drummer, in his case a guy named Pickle. (You think he knows Spam?) What drives Jones' blues, though, is Fat Possum's trademark unpredictability: Jones and Pickle wander all around the beat, and when in doubt, they just keep going. Some would say the pair plays sloppily; others would contend they're just doing what comes naturally. After all, does anybody who is feeling the music count the beats in a measure when John Lee Hooker is playing? For me, Jones remains a subject for further investigation. On Pucker Up, the song "Lead Me On" finds Jones claiming to love the Lord and pleading for salvation. (He also seems to have dropped the nickname "Wine" from his moniker.) The album ends, though, with a rant called "Guess I Just Fucked It All Up Again." It'll be interesting to see on which side of the fence this story ends.
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