Aug 1, 2023 1:22 PM
Blindfold Test: Joey Baron
At 68, Joey Baron has been a lifelong connoisseur of the nuances of groove and melody-oriented drumming. Over his…
The viable flow of the blues continues to cultivate. Elemental and rooted, it has percolated through the American popular music basics, from bebop to hip-hop. It’s the godsend of melody and rhythm expressed in a range of emotions, from misery and oppression to humor and raunch. Its architects like to party hard, entice audiences to abandon niceties and pack the dance floor, tell stories with a swell of wisdom.
The stylistic fluidity inherent in the blues informs the heart, the soul. In today’s music world dominated by artifice and predictability, the new generation of alt-boogie blues artistry powers on.
The history of the music, from the fertile Mississippi Delta to the survival diaspora in northern cities, has been documented in field recordings (Alan Lomax, Arhoolie Records’ Chris Strachwitz) and pioneering record labels like Fat Possum. The latest champion of the blues tradition, Tell Everybody! (21st Century Juke Joint Blues), arrives with the impressive compilation of relatively unknown elders and upstart new-to-the-attention bluesters.
The album is produced by Dan Auerbach, the co-pilot of the dynamic blues-rock cookers The Black Keys and owner of his Nashville-based Easy Eye Sound studio.
“Tell Everybody! is not the same-old-blues compilation,” says Auerbach via a WhatsApp conversation in Portugal during the final stretch of the blockbuster Black Keys dates in Europe — its first tour there in nearly 10 years that was populated by, to his surprise, crowd surfers for every show.
“The album is a mixed bag, the ways blues always has been,” he says. “It’s not pop, it’s not polished. It’s very raw, gutsy and strange at times. There’s magic there. That’s why people love it so much. It’s not supposed to be at the top of the charts. It’s supposed to be in the juke joints because that’s what keeps the music alive. It is so potent.”
The 12-track collection ranks as the most valuable album of recent times that documents the evolutionary lifespan of the new blues. It includes veterans and such newcomers as the Detroit-based drum-dobro duo Moonrisers who chug through their easy-flowing instrumental “Tall Shadow.” Then there’s the acoustic dobro spice of the ear-opening Korean-American Nat Myers singing about using the water diviner to dig a well for his woman on “Willow Witch.”
“Dan found out about me by viewing my videos on Instagram during the pandemic when I couldn’t do any busking,” the Kentucky-based Myers explains. “It was a crisis time, and I’m not interested in having the camera turn to myself. But it ended up being a blessing that I was able to meet Dan and begin working with him and talking with him about our shared interests like the rootsy soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? He was interested in me creating new songs in the blues tradition.”
Recorded just before the Stop Asian Hate protest movement, Myers wrote new material with Auerbach and his team at Easy Eye Sound for his debut album Yellow Peril. “Nat came to me out of the blue with his Instagram posts,” Auerbach says. “Instantly I heard Big Bill Broonzy and Sam Chatmon and Furry Lewis with that Delta slide that I love so much. I wasn’t hearing music like that anymore.”
In lieu of setting up in his studio, Auerbach decided to take the sessions to his 100-year-old house in the countryside outside of Nashville. “I wanted that home sound that’s unique,” he says. “And you could resonate with it and hear Nat tapping his foot on the wood floor. This was where a blues party should be.”
Myers says that he’s constantly re-educating himself with the music. “I’m outspoken, swinging my own way,” he says. “I’m hoping the blues keeps moving forward. There’s a lot to be said in acoustic country music. It continues to speak to a lot of people. It’s been awesome to be a part of the cross section of the blues on Tell Everybody!”
While Myers is a relative newcomer, Auerbach gives top-billing to the blues guitar megastar Robert Finley, who has opened for numerous Black Keys shows. “Robert slays people,” he says. “He has so much energy and the audience feeds off that. When we played Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, he got three standing ovations.”
Auerbach recently recorded the 70-year-old Louisiana native’s new offering, Black Bayou, a visceral, vibrant album set to be released Oct. 27. “This captures Robert’s joy and personality,” he says. “The whole record was free style, with him telling jokes and making up songs as he went. We were just along for the ride — heavyweight players in the band serving Robert.”
That’s how the robust guitarist and singer delivered his searing electric fire power on the title track. He’s having fun getting his audience aroused for partying and dancing by belting out:
“If you wanna have a good time
Come on out to the shack
Cause you gonna have the time of your life
And you might not never go back”
Auerbach says that he and his crew launched into Tell Everybody! to honor the Mississippi hill country blues tradition embodied in guitarists R.L. Burnside and especially Junior Kimbrough, who founded the famous Sunday night juke joint jam on Highway 4 between Senatobia and Holly Springs. In 1992 Kimbrough recorded All Night Long, and in 1994 Burnside recorded Too Bad Jim. “When I first heard their early Fat Possum records, they hit me and made the light bulbs go off in my brain,” Auerbach says.
His initial entrée into the blues was through his father’s complete Chess Records catalog on vinyl. “I was new to that world,” he says. “Those records sounded so fresh, so different. I loved blues music. I listened to video series on Lomax tapes on VHS and read his book The Land Where The Blues Began. And then Arhoolie Records. Chris was the king.”
Auerbach, a native of Akron, Ohio, fully plunged into blues guitar when he heard Hound Dog Taylor and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He headed to the library, started taking out more VHS tapes to seek out the players he liked including Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Bukka White. “It was all about play, pause, rewind,” he says. “That was my training method. I took a guitar lesson once or twice. I brought a Junior Kimbrough CD to one of my teachers, and this guy had no clue. His only response was that Junior’s guitar was way out of tune.”
Auerbach stretched out to find blues purveyors nearby. When he was 16, he discovered Glenn Schwartz playing his weekly Thursday-night bar show at the working-class Cleveland club Hoopples. “Glenn was a huge influence on The Black Keys,” he says. “He had a homemade guitar with four additional strings because he read in the Bible that music for the Lord must be played on a 10-string instrument. He had giant amps that made the whole bar shake. It was like seeing Cream in a small room. His guitar always sounded so good, and he’d stop in the middle of songs and tell everyone they were sinners who were going to hell for drinking and fornicating, then continued the song. It was bizarre and exciting. On a couple of occasions I recorded him with a hand-held stereo mic. I saw some mythical sets.”
Schwartz, who died in 2018, served as one of the original guitarists for Cleveland-based rock band James Gang before Joe Walsh came on board. Down the road, Auerbach recorded Schwartz proper in the Easy Eye Sound studio for two tunes that appear on Tell Everybody! With Walsh along for the ride as a guest, the hectic, chaotic Schwartz delivers the gospel blues “Daughter Of Zion.” The final track of the album is Schwartz delving into sober deep blues on acoustic guitar. He sings the chilling story song “Collinwood Fire” that tells the “hard times” tragic tale of 172 elementary school children dying in a catastrophic fire at Lake View School in suburban Cleveland in 1908.
When Auerbach turned 18, he and his father made a blues pilgrimage to Mississippi that included a visit to Junior’s Place. The elder blues statesman had recently passed away, but the rawness of the Delta sound was still strong. Not knowing that the shows were after-dark Sunday affairs, they appeared at the empty parking lot during the day. They were approached by Junior’s son Kinny Kimbrough, drummer of the joint. He needed help. “Kinny came up to us, first wondering why we were there in the afternoon, then asking if we could help with the bail to get his brother David out of jail on drug charges for the show that night,” Auerbach says. “We gave him some cash, and David was freed.”
That evening the pair went into the juke joint — a shack patched together by walls of weathered plywood and rusted sheets of corrugated metal. Hand-written signs at the door prohibited drugs and photos. Inside was a standard bar with two-buck beers, a pool table, a couple of old couches, original folk artwork on the walls (including a portrait of Oprah) and murals (ocean waves and white pointed-peak mountains against a deep blue background). The walls were painted blue-green and red and sparkled with tiny silver glitters. The dance floor was packed with grinding, hooting and sweating locals in transcendence.
A hero at the club and a terrific guitarist, David Jr. 3rd arrived to take the stage with Kinny and R.L. Burnside’s son Gary on bass. They all played Junior’s songs for the set. ”It was amazing,” Auerbach says. “David was so talented, and yet so troubled.” As for his young experience there, he says, “Go to a juke joint the first time, and it will really change you.”
On Tell Everybody! the leadoff track comes directly from the roots of the Mississippi hills country region with Grammy-nominated singer-electric-guitarist R.L. Boyce mesmerizing with a hypnotic dance-party rendering of “Coal Black Mattie,” written by Ranie Burnett. It was a songbook favorite of Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and The Black Keys dug deep into it on its 2021 Delta Kream album. The big draw here is that Boyce is heralded in his home and reigns as the King of Hill Country Boogie.
More compilation highlights include blues elder Jimmy “Duck” Holmes delivering a percussive version of the favorite “Catfish Blues” most noted by the Muddy Waters rendition, and Leo “Bud” Welch, who passed in 2017, putting the gospel blues sting into “Don’t Let The Devil Rule.” Both are mono versions from their previously released Easy Eye Sound albums.
Chicago-based guitarist Gabe Carter, discovered by a video of him playing on a street, leads two compelling tunes, the down-and-dirty “Anything You Need” and the twangy, gritty story of two gray wolves on “Buffalo Road.”
“I’ve always loved compilations,” says Auerbach. “They’ve always been influential to me. When done right, they can be a great mixtape. I think of this as a record you’d want to put on at a party.”
Two bonuses on Tell Everybody! come from The Black Keys and a solo shot by Auerbach. The lovelorn blues rocker “No Lovin’,” composed by Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney and recorded by the duo, was released earlier this year as a singles teaser to announce the upcoming compilation. The catchy party rocker “Every Chance I Get (I Want You In The Flesh)” drives with three electric guitars and a hip synthesized drone. It’s an older song in Auerbach’s song catalog that was co-written by his New York collaborator, L. Russell Brown (most famous for writing the 1973 pop hit “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree,” put on the charts by Tony Orlando and Dawn). “He’s old school,” says Auerbach. “I love how this song feels, so it seems like a good fit to be on the album. The drone is from an Indian sound box machine that I picked up years ago. We call on its powers every once in a while.”
As for why he and The Black Keys slide into the rustic blues mix, Auerbach grins. “It helps to move units,” he says. “It’s an easy way to get this music to more people, Being in The Black Keys is a blessing. It helps in every way to make people aware. On the road we have opening acts like Robert Finley that wake people up.”
As a producer, Auerbach has been producing several albums for his Easy Eye Sound label including Finley, Meyers, Holmes and the Oakland-based alt-rock band Shannon and The Clams, which was on the road with The Black Keys recently.
“My studio is my happy place,” says Auerbach, whose East Eye Sound has been headquartered in Nashville for the last 13 years. “It’s been a constant part of my adult life. I can’t do anything else. I’m geared to supporting musicians and songwriters. And the blues? There’s no way to stop it.” DB
POSTSCRIPT: There was a blessing on those who experienced Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. He passed away in January 1998. In April 2000, the building burned down, never to be rebuilt. David Jr. 3rd passed away, age 54, in 2019. Sibling Kinny still drums today, including on Robert Finley’s ”Tell Everybody” title track.
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