Blue is a Color You Can Hear
With the annual Chicago Blues Festival coming up every June, I like to get my ears in proper shape by pulling some old ceedeez off of the shelf from the likes of Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, and so on. It’s like this every spring. Blue is the only color that makes a sound, and it’s a sound that never ever lets me down. It’s THE sound upon which all other sounds in popular music were built, whether you know it or not. It’s a sound I’ve grown up on, having been lucky enough to have grown up within earshot of Chicago radio and the great WXRT in particular. A constant worry of mine has been that blues music will eventually fade from our collective memory as pop music continues it’s fascinating, never-ending mutations, and rock and roll’s blueprint will be lost in the haze of time. Every decade however, someone new comes along and reminds everyone willing to listen of how crucial this uniquely American style of music is. I’m not talking here about new generations of traditionalist blues players who stay within the boundaries of the genre. As important as they are to the art form’s survival, their influence is rarely felt beyond their core audience of blues purists. What I’m talking about are artists whom I tend to think of as blues ambassadors, rock and rollers whose sound is firmly rooted in the blues tradition. In the past, we’ve had The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, to name a few at the top of the all-time list. Over the past decade, the top of the list of new blues ambassadors has to be Jack White and The Black Keys.
Some little-known history for ya: Back in 1991, Mississippi residents Matthew Johnson and Peter Lee started Fat Possum Records on $400 diverted from a student loan. Their mission was to document and share with the world the sound of Northern Mississippi hill country blues, based mainly on two artists: R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, who were, at the time, the reigning kings of Northern Mississippi juke joints. In anthropological terms, Burnside and Kimbrough represented a pristine, undiscovered sub-field of blues music, one relatively free of outside influence and one that was barely known to the outside world. Johnson and Lee documented Burnside’s and Kimbrough’s music in a series of Fat Possum recordings that caught the attention of the national music press and blues-rooted rockers like Jon Spencer and Iggy Pop.
Listen closely to a Junior Kimbrough track and you’ll hear something more that just music… there’s something else winding its way through the hypnotic polyrhythms on an elpee like Kimbrough’s “Sad Days, Lonely Nights”. In the early nineties, I would play the whole thing for anyone who would listen, and more than a few had remarked that indeed, Junior Kimbrough’s music was trance-inducing, with a dark, shadow-like underside that you can feel but not really get a full grip on. One friend remarked, “Jesus Christ… it’s really good, but really unsettling, too. Like voodoo…”
It’s rare for a band to pay homage to an influence by recording and releasing an entire set of their idol’s songs, but that’s exactly what The Black Keys did in 2006 with “Chulahoma”, named after the Northern Mississippi town where Kimbrough’s celebrated juke joint once stood before it burned to the ground a few years after Kimbrough’s death. It’s a set that’s stripped down to the essentials, true to Kimbrough’s style, and it’s a point of departure in The Black Keys catalogue. Since “Chulahoma”, Auerbach and musical partner Patrick Carney have been continually expanding their sound and style, most notably with Attack & Release, which was produced by the hot-genre-bending but heavy-handed production commodity Danger Mouse. Attack & Release has a few goofy-retro accents that are instantly identifiable as the usual Danger Mouse studio mischief, but The Black Keys play so strong, the record is never in danger of Danger Mouse domination.
On the new elpee, Brothers, Danger Mouse is limited to producing just one track (a soul-rocking bit of bliss named “Tighten Up”) and The Black Keys do the rest themselves. Recorded at the historic Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, (a place so steeped in musical history it must’ve been an absolute thrill for them) Auerbach and Carney have split the difference between the rawboned blues they typically play and their own brand of sweet Memphis soul, a style and sound they’ve been slowly migrating toward since “Chulahoma”. Auerbach confidently swings a falsetto while rolling around in the deep grooves of “Everlasting Light” and again on “The Only One”. Their slightly slowed-down cover of Jerry Butler’s classic “Never Gonna Give You Up” is true to the old-school R&B spirit of original, and while Auerbach could never match Butler’s velvety-plush vocals, he works it well within his range and turns it into a loving tribute to what my parents used to playfully refer to as “belly-rubbing music”… slow jams to dance real close to after the kids have all gone to bed.
Eight full length recordings in the game without a bad one in the bunch, (and that’s not even counting Auerbach’s excellent 2009 solo debut “Keep It Hid” or their hip-hop collaboration with the likes of Damon Dash, Q-Tip, RZA, and Mos Def named Blakroc) The Black Keys have become as reliable as the genre itself.
Junior Kimbrough would be proud.