It’s Monday, and I’ve got the Blues

Nov 5, 2012 by


We spent our Sunday afternoon yesterday speaking with a young blues musician based here in Winston Salem (more on that to come in the next week or so after we sift through all the audio).  The Blues is history in music, and like any other time you talk about the blues, you end up talking about all the other guys who have played it.  At one point the North Mississippi All Stars came up which led to a conversation about Luther Dickinson, the bands he’s played in and with, and Mississippi Juke Joints.  The Blues is expansive, running the gamut from sparse acoustic recordings to expansive lead filled orchestrations, but the beauty of it is it all comes from the same roots in the Mississippi Delta, and its “simplistic” nature leads to never ending interpretations and permutations.

Luther (everyone calls him by his first name) has played with RL Burnside, and that got me to thinking about the collaboration Burnside did with Jon Spencer.  Two pretty disparate fellows, who ended up making some pretty great music together.  If you need any evidence that the Blues is a universal music, the pairing of an Ivy League dropout and a former sharecropper should be all you need.

I’m particularly fascinated with the journey Spencer took to find the blues.  So dissatisfied with the state of rock n roll he formed Pussy Galore as an attempt to destroy it – or at least restart it.  The band’s first album was their send up of Exile on Main Street, a sloppy track by track “cover” of the original album.  Purists hate it, and with good reason, but amidst all the rancor, tape hiss and out of tuned guitars is something…  Pussy Galore always had a mix of part sloppy and part don’t give a fuck to their musical recipe.  Like any artist, they weren’t always as interested in what happened to the final product as they were with the creation of the thing.  The word deconstruction is often overused, but I don’t think you could ever apply it better than in the case of Pussy Galore.

If you think about the term “deconstruction”, it has two meanings, the literal and the philosophical.  In the literal, you break something down to its component parts.  In the philosophical question assumption of language to convey reality – meaning language is really just words referring to other words, so you approach a text by ridding yourself of any assumptions and “take an active role in defining meaning through new word construction, etymology, pun, and other word play”.  Didn’t know you were getting an philosophy lecture did you?  Spencer, who studied Semiotic analysis, had all this mind with Pussy Galore, whether it was conscious or not.  It’s especially obvious with Exile on Main Street, but also with the rest of the body of Pussy Galore.  The problem something like this is that it can often be appreciated, but not necessarily listened to (Though I will say I love “Dial M for Motherfucker” and “Sugarshitsharp” by PG).



If PG was deconstruction, then the Blues Explosion is reconstruction.  Spencer, while playing all that sludge with Galore, learned a thing or two about guitar and found an inspiration in the same place may blues guitarists before him did.  With The Explosion, Spencer takes Pussy Galore that much further, but getting rid of the over the top destruction of the music, and instead focusing on the parts and actually celebrating them.  The word play and puns and inside jokes that were a part of Pussy Galore are still there, but now in a more palatable form.  Instead of hiding behind the noise and fury, he embraces those components and highlights what makes them enjoyable.  It still makes your ears ring, but it also makes you want to sing along and, dare I say, dance.  His delivery, definitely tongue and cheek, is no less serious or reverent, he’s just reinvented the white boy blues to be the Elvis of our time, and I mean it as a compliment.  His delivery has had him come under fire – he was called an updated version of a “traveling minstrel show” in a critique by Penthouse, and to some there seems to be this feeling that he doesn’t appreciate the music, and chooses to ape it for show and effect.  Only Spencer knows for sure, but I don’t see it that way – I think he knows the joke is on him – the privileged white kid who chose to be trashy and sing the blues, delivering it any other way would be more hypocritical than making a show of it, in my opinion.



Which leads us to RL Burnside.  No need for parody, affectations, discussions of deconstruction, or what it all means.  Just give it a listen – to me it’s the essence of what Spencer is trying to do with both bands.  Burnside’s music is what you get when you boil it down to its rawest emotion.  It is the blues that comes from the gut, and rips them apart on the way out.  Its every bit as ugly and beautiful as the life he, and many of his contemporaries, led.  I love Jon Spencer’s music, but I don’t feel bad at all saying one of the best things he did was collaborate with Burnside on “A Ass Pocket of Whiskey”.  Not just because of the music –though it was great  –  but because it was the gateway album for a legion of people who had never heard of Burnside, and likely never would have.  It gave Burnside some late career exposure and led to a decade or so of experimentalism on his part.




Spencer’s route to the blues was an intellectual one, a decision and a choice.  For RL, there was never any other way.



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