Music News

R.L. Burnside

It's a sad fact that when most casual music listeners think of the blues these days, they're likely to picture a mullet-headed, white journeyman cranking out the umpteenth tired version of "Born Under a Bad Sign," for tight-assed corporate execs who think soul music is the stuff Vonda Shepard plays on Ally McBeal.

You can preserve a musical style, but you can't preserve the original social context that made it so potent. And while some musical genres can stretch and evolve over time, the blues is a simple form that can only stretch so far without losing its identity. It's a dilemma that explains why so few contemporary blues records jump out of the speakers with the same kind of force that Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters' classic Chess sides had.

But R.L. Burnside plays his own kind of blues. A 75-year-old product of the north Mississippi hill country, Burnside rarely messes with established 12-bar structures that define, and ultimately limit, most blues songs. Burnside's hill-country blues is about finding a simple, one-chord guitar riff and vamping on it endlessly until he's shaken loose all his rural angst. It's all about the groove: raw, loose and sexual, and every bit as uninhibited as the wildest garage punk. Even the instrumentation -- two guitars and drums -- is essentially trash punk with a bottleneck slide.

That's why Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion has reverently backed up Burnside, and that's why indie-rock imprint Epitaph distributes his Fat Possum releases. Burnside is relevant to the 21st century in that he's as bored, pissed off and horny as most of the punk kids who've adopted him as a spiritual godfather.

This live record -- most of which was recorded at Portland's Crystal Ballroom, located, appropriately enough, on Burnside Street -- succeeds where his studio recordings sometimes fail: It captures how overpowering his sweaty rave-ups can be when he gets caught up in the moment. Tracks like "Jumper on the Line" and "Snake Drive" are locomotive trains barreling right through your solar plexus, the sound of a wild old dude on the prowl, with a bottle of Jack Daniel's running through his head. If such stompers don't convince you, Burnside also takes a stab at standup -- make that sit-down -- comedy, with a lengthy Mississippi incest joke, and a tongue-in-cheek request for some "grapefruit juice" to help him cool off onstage. As this record proves, it takes more than grapefruit juice to cool this guy off.