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The Boston Phoenix Blues Chaos Theory

Burnside and Kimbrough file absentee albums

By Ted Drozdowski

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  "Oh shit. I can't see," said the great Mississippi hill-country bluesman R.L. Burnside as he stepped toward the microphone -- just loud enough that it shot through the sound system. Moments before he got on stage at the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival last month, the sky above Clarksdale, Mississippi had turned a mean purple-and-black, and the air started swirling, tossing dust, plastic beer cups, and barbecue sandwich wrappers into little tornadoes that blinded and stung.

Burnside got only halfway through his opening song, "Georgia Women," before the clouds let go like a hog's bladder. He fled at the last chord, dodging the electri-frying puddles that flooded the stage as the wind continued to drive the water sideways. And so the blues portion of the 11th annual event held beside the railroad depot where Muddy Waters boarded his now-legendary first train to Chicago came to a premature close.

Burnside took it in stride, returning home to snooze. No big deal -- at least for him. Chaos is his friend. Once, during a recording session, a big glass door practically leapt off its hinges to strike producer Robert Palmer in the head. It nearly knocked Palmer cold but wrung a torrent of laughs from R.L. And I've often seen Burnside plug into a perfectly working amplifier whose tubes started popping like Orville Redenbacher's the second he hit a few notes. Then there's the fact that three of his houses have burned down in the past 10 or so years.

So given R.L.'s kinship with chaos, he's probably unruffled by the sound of his new Come On In (Fat Possum). At the very least, it's a first for blues: a remix album. Some hardcore blues fans I know are already pissed off about it. Personally, I think it's damn funny. And I'm sure the college/indie/scum-rock audience that has been picking up on R.L. since his affiliation with Jon Spencer began (yielding, among other things, the A Ass Pocket of Whiskey CD) will dig it too. In spirit -- hell, in content -- it's not too far from a Beastie Boys album.

Here's the deal: dance-mix engineers Tom Rothrock, Beal Dabs, Bob Corritone, and Alec Empire (of Atari Teenage Riot) have done the cut-and-paste with fragments of R.L.'s spoken asides culled from session tapes, and with samples from his more popular tunes like "Snake Drive" and "Georgia Women." They've built entirely new tunes from them -- full of verbal and rhythmic chaos -- set to the beats generated by Burnside, his guitar accomplice Kenny Brown, or his drumming grandson Cedric Burnside. Or by hired-hand percussionist Alejandro Rosso.

As trip-hoppy remixes go these days, they're all rough and workmanlike -- unspectacular. But I've been waiting so long for some smart-ass to sample R.L.'s trademark call of "Well, well, well!" that I can't help being amused now that it's actually happened. I also know that Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson thrives on pissing off blues purists, which is certainly a subtext if not a driving force of Come On In. Plus, Johnson's a smart guy. He knows college dudes will buy this stuff while everybody waits for R.L. to take a breather from his lucrative touring schedule to record a real album.

And Fat Possum must make catalogue while the sun shines. With the median age of its roster wedged firmly in the mid to late 60s, well, chances are guys like T-Model Ford, CeDell Davis, R.L., Elmo Williams, and the rest won't be making albums in the year 2525. Case in point: Junior Kimbrough, who died this past January and released his new God Knows I Tried this month. Kimbrough's absence was almost palpable at the down-home Sunflower fest this year. And certainly the festivities at his juke joint in Chulahoma over the festival weekend played out like a mad-ass Irish wake. Especially when his son David Malone did the cry-and-moan on his late pop's "Junior Blues."

The Fat Possum sessions leftovers on God Knows I Tried are perhaps the last Kimbrough we'll hear. Too bad, because his unique style still rips out of the speakers like a jet breaking the sound barrier.

Well, maybe a slow jet. Because Junior always did take things at his own hypnotic pace. Listen to the instrumental take of his trademark "All Night Long" on this disc and you can hear the bare bones of his music -- its African rhythmic roots, the kora-like melodies -- grind. Yet it's his bawling voice, like a calf lost in the dark, that makes this final chapter so poignant. It seems to define the heartache of the blues. Especially in solo numbers like "You're Gonna Find Your Mistake," which finds Kimbrough alone -- very alone -- with his electric guitar advising a love gone astray that someday she's gonna be as full of ache and regret as he sounds.

In a way, Kimbrough's posthumous swan song and Burnside's absentee remix album are both reminders of the same indelible fact. These guys are irreplaceable blossoms in the wild fields of American music. And no samples, substitutions, or newcomers are ever gonna replace them.

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