Month: May 2011

Booker (Bukka) White and the Blues — Part 2

Part 1 is HERE

While many guitar players have taken the humble beginnings of blues guitar styling into the realm of blues guitar virtuoso over the years and have done it very well: Johnny Winter, Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Roy Buchanan, Jeff Beck, and Buddy Guy, to name but a few, there have always been those more concerned with the most basic elements; feel, nuance, and (here comes my favorite word again) atmosphere. Two of my favorite superstar bands, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, both did very faithful or very perverted takes on the blues idiom and the blues sound. Both were obsessed with using technology or limited technology to get a sound that was either faithful to the original or a hyper-realistic redefinition. Jimmy Page was a master at recording and production and always stressed the importance of distance miking and microphone placement as two very overlooked ways to achieve an interesting sound of the blues or whatever the vibe of the song required. “Distance equals depth”, he has said many times in interviews. Led Zeppelin did many versions of blues influenced material and always created an interesting sonic approach that built upon what one could hear on the original song — When the Levee Breaks is a very good example. Someday I’d like to write about stuff I learned from listening to and reading about Jimmy Page, but in the meantime this is fascinating reading for anyone who is interested. A guy by the name of Bill O’Neil explores Led Zep’s studio wizardry with articles on Ten Years Gone and In My Time of Dying.

The Rolling Stones Beggars BanquetThe Rolling Stones, when recording Parachute Woman, a no-frills chugger on the Beggars Banquet album, all gathered around an early Phillips cassette recorder and “overloaded” the levels so it came out greasy and slightly distorted. This was fed into the main board later. The (acoustic) guitar on Street Fighting Man, was recorded the same way, and while I don’t know that Keith has ever said one way or another, the studio release of Jumping Jack Flash sounds very similar to me. The Exile on Main Street sessions are legendary for the very DIY locations and methods of recording of what turned out to be probably one of the most lo-fi blues-authentic major releases ever. As I mentioned already, Mick Jagger copped his whole vocal style from the blues and it’s very apparent on the Beggars Banquet through Exile recordings. Both Keith Richards and Jimmy Page adopted the “open tunings” of many blues players — Booker White, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Son House, and later Muddy Waters — to achieve the same kind of guitar sound that their heroes were getting on these early records. Tuning to an “open” basically means tuning the strings so that the guitar is playing a chord without any fingers fretting the strings. This allows the player to play a chord, bass line or shuffle rhythm on the lower register, while simultaneously playing licks or melody lines on the higher strings. It also allows for interesting drone effects and when combined with a capo, allows a player to play the same patterns all over the neck in different keys, allowing the player to adjust for sound effect or to complement the vocal key he or she wants to play in. Keith Richards began using these tunings on the studio version of Jumping Jack Flash and the Beggars Banquet album and it signaled a new era for the Stones sound. I also think that Jumping Jack Flash might be the first open-tuned top 10 hit ever, but I’m not sure about that. Jimmy Page not only used the traditional open tunings, but also made up his own and I’ll explore all of this in more detail in a future post. There are literally endless possibilities and it’s something anyone should fool around with just to see how it might change the sound of the musical style or even song one is trying to play.

The Jam Messengers at Booker White's grave

A groovy great band that has come on the Cave Radar lately is The Jam Messengers, a righteous duo who understand the essence of the blues, dangerous living, analog dreams and bourbon washed down with Furry Lewis. I’ve known singer Rob K. for a long time. He and his partner for many years, Scott Jarvis, were NYC’s premier downtown bluesy rhythm section, the furious and notorious Workdogs. They had a lengthy, glamorous career on the once rough streets of the Lower East Side and had many a fine side-man and woman sit in with them. I was lucky enough to catch quite a few of their shows including one with Blues Explosion founder Jon Spencer, another on the same bill with modern-day blues twister, Poppy Chubby, and quite a few with the late, great Jerry “Dublee” Williams. They made quite a few recordings and I believe some of them are still available if you check out their website.

The Workdogs "Roberta" album

Rob K is still a blues entertainer-philosopher supremo front-man extraordinaire, now with a new partner, “Uncle” Marco Butcher, a guy who wakes up and drinks the blues for breakfast. Marco lays out successive fiery riffs and swinging grooves on the guitar…while playing traps and shouting along on the choruses simultaneously! Holy cow is that super impressive! His open-tuned, slide-induced riffing and chooglin’ through a dirty Fender Champ would please Booker White, of that I am sure. So would his great sense of time and keeping the beat right up the big old butt of the audience. Rob K. is a master of the church-brought-low — a modern-day Testifier with a capital “T” — and he preaches his life gospel to all of the faithful and the faithful leave redeemed and relieved of all burdens. Politics, sexual roles, the profane and the mundane have all changed quite a bit since the days of Booker White and Rob K is a man with his finger on the pulse and his foot on the gas. Real blues singers throughout the years have always prided themselves on pushing boundaries, musically and lyrically, and the trouble with the majority of mainstream blues is that many an artist has retreated to the safe confines of the cliché. Not so with the Rob and Marco and this is an important common thread to the blues legacy and it resonates with people all over the world. Taking it to the people like you are supposed to and hitting them with music and a message that the people need.

Because of artists like the Jam Messengers, Workdogs and many others that I will profile in the future, somewhere men like Booker White and Howlin’ Wolf, and women like Sister Rosetta and Memphis Minnie are pleased and maybe a little surprised that their artistic efforts and life stories have not only left a deep impression on the skin of this world, but continue to inspire lost souls who struggle through the muck and the fog of the jagged night in search of that sound, that feel and deliverance from all that is common and predictable. Through their recordings, films, stories, and performances these greats of yesteryear have left behind a legacy that can inspire and lead any musician with interest and an ear to the Promise Land.

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Cari Dell

Whew! You go girl!

Really great performance of a well-known song. Cari Dell plays all of the right licks from Jimi’s and Stevie’s versions and adds quite a few tasty ones of her own, while doing all of the tricks in the guitar-slinger book. She sings it very nicely too!

The guy in the cowboy hat rules. Anyone who has ever played a show at a place like this knows exactly what I’m talking about.