Sweet Home Chicago?
Contemplating the state of the blues in the Windy City.
By James Porter
DECEMBER 13, 1999: The art form called the blues wasn't doing too well at the beginning of the decade. In the summer of 1990, I had a rockabilly/blues band that hosted a jam night at a defunct Wrigleyville sports bar. One right after another, I saw 'em all: female singers doing bad Janis Joplin impersonations; guitar exhibitionists doing torturous fifteen-minute versions of "Rock Me Baby"; jocks who high-fived each other whenever someone did a Stevie Ray Vaughan song. And then, at the tail end of summer, something funny happened.
We had actually stopped hosting the jam a couple of weeks before that, although we still came down to hang out anyway. But the week that Stevie died in a helicopter accident (right after playing "Sweet Home Chicago" with Eric Clapton and Robert Cray), I avoided going. Not because the news was depressing, which it was. But more because every hippie within Illinois state lines who had a Flying V was probably going to spend a good portion of the night butchering his legacy. No, I'll stay home with my two Stevie Ray albums and my memories, thank you. Like Elvis and the Beastie Boys, Stevie Ray helped to bring something black performers had done for years into white consciousness. His bluesy rhythms were the closest many people got to the blues before Cray hit it big.
As a teenager in the eighties, I saw a lot of promise in the revived blues scene. (Unfortunately, the blues hit a wall in the early seventies, falling off the public scope until 1979's "The Blues Brothers" got things going again.) Z.Z. Hill helped bring it back among black folks, while Stevie Ray kept it on the white rock radar. Plus, the whole English-synthesizer scene sounded false and tired; Stevie actually had a couple of videos in release (from his "Couldn't Stand The Weather" album), and the minute I saw Stevie's clip follow Duran Duran's on some UHF video show, there was no turning backDuran Duran had to go. When Stevie played at the Chicago Blues Fest, I was one of many who rushed the stage, went hogwild, the whole bit.
But by the beginning of the nineties I thought that the blues had, temporarily, gone as far as it could go. There seemed to be a short list of songs that blues bands performed (with "Sweet Home Chicago" closing in at number one); I got tired of friends telling me that some jive (and I don't mean swing) band at some sports bar was the band to see, only to find out they had the same set list that the Mojo Ribshack Barbecue Blues Band (or whomever) had the week before. In this way, Stevie Ray's death almost seemed symbolic. This whole "blues-rock" nonsense (which amounted to being the worst of both worlds) was getting to me, and the passing of this guitar icon was the final straw.
As a result, during the first few years of the nineties I hardly listened to any current blues at all. I still read Living Blues magazine and continued to go to Blues Fest, but stuck to the old stuff like Slim Harpo or the Cobra Records box. Every now and then, I'd get an earful of some artist who claimed to be part of some mythical "new blue blood" generation, but their attempts at "modernization" meant longer seventies-style solos and replacing "Sweet Home Chicago" with "Take Me To The River." Recently, when an ex-girlfriend told me that most of the blues she heard during her college days sounded like "guitar wank," I partially agreed. But not before setting her straight: True blues is more than what you normally hear played.
What I'd always hoped for was some kind of punk-inspired "back to the roots" music, with blues reaching back but creating something new at the same time. Friends in both blues and alt-rock scenes in the early nineties thought it was an odd idea, like suggesting Son Seals should cover the Dead Kennedys. Country's done it on and off for yearspunk rockers getting rid of the big-hair Kenny Rogers excesses and cross-referencing fifties honky-tonk to create something new like the Waco Brothers or the Derailers. Blues is only now catching up with this idea. At first, this "punk-blues" term was applied by bored rock critics to bands like Red Red Meat, who denied ever listening to blues in interviews (truthfully, I can't hear a blues connection in their music either). Then came the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a decent-enough group. At least Spencer admits looking to the blues for inspiration, but any influence on their music is ruthlessly buried under Stooges-style guitar orgies. You can hear a more pronounced (and, not surprisingly, more fiery) blues influence in the gang from Oxford, Mississippi's Fat Possum Recordsfounded in 1991 by Matthew Johnson and former Living Blues editor Peter Lee (who left when the label was still in its infancy).
From the outset, label head Matthew Johnson saw the complacency of the contemporary blues scene as it stood, recording gutbucket-raw blues artists like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Cedell Davis and others. (And some that weren't: David Malone, one of the more mainstream artists in the stable, sounded like he came straight from an Alligator Records compilation.) Even in interviews as early as 1995, label officials said that they were marketing their blues greats toward the "alternative nation," as it were. I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by some of those early releases. The idea was cool, but some of the CDs were as meandering and unfocused as the worst Grateful Dead jam.
Although R.L. Burnside appeared to be the standout exception, the rest of those early discs did nothing for me. That was early 1996. And then Fat Possum got mean. First, they changed distributors, from the jam-band kings at Capricorn to the punk-rock speed demons at Epitaph. Everything about the label after this point, from its sound to its image ("NOT THE SAME OLD BLUES CRAP," blared the ads), became more intense. "Pee-Wee Get My Gun," the debut album from T-Model Ford, was the disc that convinced everybody that the blues was not just party music for young yuppies and aging hippies, but could still be as dangerous and subversive as it was fifty years earlier. Of course, the old shock-value tactics were there: The cover photo pictured a child pointing a gun straight at the camera; in the song "I'm Insane" he threatens to put his foot up his girlfriend's ass.
But if T-Model and Fat Possum proved anything, it was that you didn't have to water down the blues to get over with nineties rock crowds. A new concept in Chicago, where tourists coming in want to hear "Chicago blues." They don't care what; as long as you've got an old black man with a guitar, they'll think it's genuine and be able to say they heard it. And with people flocking in, Chicago's blues scene has had no incentive to stretch, in fact hasn't let itself grow, seemingly afraid to ruin the mediocrity gravy train its been riding for years. If the home of the blues is going to set the trends into the next century, it's time someone realized that anything will sell if you market it correctly.
What T-Model, R.L. and the rest of the Fat Possum stable have proved is that traditional new blues can grow artistically and, if it sounds the right way, still draw as many crowds as the seventies-style blues-rock of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Melvin Taylor, Joanna Connors and modern-day Buddy Guy. The label's recent foray into dance music (specifically R.L. Burnside's "Come On In" album) is another story, although I'll admit to liking those as well (and I'm hardly a dance music aficionado). However, the owner of a local record store once confided to me that, growing up in Chicago he long dismissed the blues as shallow, jam-band music, based on the post-Stevie Ray bands he saw at Blues Fest and around town. Listening to the Fat Possum catalog, as well as classic Chess masters like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, changed his mind.
And although white crowds have become the blues' lifeline, the nineties saw an influx of young black musicians reclaiming the idiom. Pre-Robert Cray, the stereotype of the blues singer was usually a grandfatherly black man in overalls. Cray was in his early thirties when he made his breakthrough, some fifteen-odd years ago. Not only did the nineties produce more relatively young blacks doing their thingChris Thomas King, Grady Champion, Deborah Coleman and far too many others to mentionbut a good number of them claimed Stevie Ray Vaughan as an influence, the only white blues performer in such a position. I vividly recall seeing a thirtyish black musician sit in with a prominent white Chicago bluesman; afterward, he confided to me that the young Caucasian upstart was "OK, but he's a white boy, he's still getting his shit together." He then said that he was more into "a funky thing, kinda like Stevie Ray Vaughan."
Concurrently, acoustic blues turned up again on the public radar, with a good portion of the new faces being African American: Keb' Mo' (who has since added more electricity), Diamond Jim Greene, Fruteland Jackson, Guy Davis, Corey Harris and Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, who, like Keb' Mo', started out doing the acoustic thing but soon branched out into other areas (like country swing, ska and a Captain Beefheart number) on his "Territory" album.
In the black community, just like the country crowd is made up of former rockers, blues was always the music that older black folks turned to when they were too old to relate to soul music. In past decades there was always a parallel black audience for the blues that was just outside public sight: Bobby Rush, Willie Clayton, Denise LaSalle, Johnnie Taylor. Sometime during the eighties, this kind of blues, more soul-oriented than anything you'll hear in the North Side clubs, was eased off of the black stationsby this decade, you heard it mainly on specialty programs (like Mr. A's late-night show on the otherwise classical WNIB-FM), or on a station like WSSD-FM, which plays soul-blues all day, but at 88.1 on the dial can only be heard on the South Side.
One of the few records in this genre to get played on regular black radio was Peggy Scott-Adams' 1996 "Bill," a cheating tale with a homosexual twist. She starts the song off by gently singing, "All of you ladies out there, turn up your radio," an old rock 'n' soul staple since Bo Diddley, no cause for alarm. However, the anger in her voice when she notices Bill and her husband "breathin' hard and French kissin'" at a party suggests you better get the hell out of the way and let her vent. Jimmy Lewis' lyrics get better: "I was ready for Mary, I was ready for Jane/How do a woman compete with a man for another man?" It was electrifying, and it very nearly knocked me out of bed.
Previously, all the blues songs about homosexuality were played for laughs (Michael Coleman's "Woman Loves a Woman" comes to mind), and even all the would-be sequels had some kind of humorous intent, but "Bill" is serious and fairly complex: At one point Bill confesses that he married simply because he figured it would cure his gayness. Three years after its release, there were about a thousand parodies and knockoffs, with the narrator finding out too late that his/her lover is gay. Scott-Adams closed the 1997 Blues Fest on the strength of this hit, and has tried to repeat it since. The follow-up album contained "Spousal Abuse," and her current disc has her husband running off with a white woman ("Let The Door Hit Ya!"). But neither of these has made anyone pull over to the side of the road as much as "Bill." A one-shot novelty? No, just telling the story as it happened.
One odd sideline of the nineties blues scene is the rise of teen-age blues phenoms. Mem Shannon takes a small swipe at this trend in his song "Paying My Dues." The media has always focused on one or two elder statesmen of the blues, like Buddy Guy and, until his recent death, Luther Allison. Now, with teen ax slingers like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, there's hardly any room for all the blues performers in between. However, at least there is a comparative youth market for the blues.
I was privileged to teach a couple of "Blues In The Schools" classes, in Birmingham, Alabama, and Baltimore, Maryland, respectively. This is a program where musicians teach junior-high kids about the blues, schooling them in guitar and vocals (I had a pretty mean blues harmonica chorus in both states) for a few weeks before putting on a show. Teaching middle-schoolers about the blues was an eye-opener, to say the least. For starters, the Maryland blues scene is bigger than the one in Alabama (which, surprisingly, is more of a jazz town), and just when the Mighty Blue Kings had cast their spell over Chicago, it was amazing to go where the swing craze hadn't hit yet. All those clubs and not a single "swing night" between 'em. Additionally, the kids I taught (between 11 and 13 years of age) were all of African-American descent and had none of the hangups about blues that their older brothers and sisters probably had.
Earlier in the decade, I worked in a record store, and the primarily black clientele, mostly hip-hop and jazz fans, were stumped that I preferred Memphis Minnie over Mary J. Blige: "James, did your woman leave you?" "Are you from the South? No? Then why do you listen to that back-country shit!?" Truth is, these kids took to the "back-country shit" like fish to water. All the musicians on the trip figured we'd have to sell blues as "the hip-hop of the forties and fifties" or some other gimmick. This never came to pass. I have no idea whether these same kids, who are probably high-school freshmen by now, are buying Buddy Guy CDs at the mall. The kids in Baltimore and Birmingham are no different than the ones here in Chicagohip-hop is the soundtrack of their lives, and there's nothing wrong with that. But for the short while they were exposed to the blues, it was a tremendous energy rush. For teachers and students both.
The local blues scene, as mighty as it is, has long has a growth problem. Lucky Peterson isn't based in Chicago, but I remember him telling an interviewer that he inserted a few obvious cover versions on a major-label CD so that the blues neophyte will have something they know and can relate to. This appears to be a standing metaphor for local blues in general: a fear of the unknown. When you go to the Double Door or the Empty Bottle, rock bands don't cover Liz Phair and Nirvana songs just so you can relate to them. And while cover versions are not a bad idea, it would be nice to have some variety between set lists. On a national level, the labels seem to have the right idea: Blues artists like Susan Tedeschi and Shemekia Copeland (to name two prominent examplesthere are others) are marketed as living, breathing artists who grow from year to year. Other, less-hyped artists like, say, Mem Shannon, Rockin' Johnny and Mark Hummel (a random sampling, I know) are distinct artists rather than wind-ups who play "Rock Me, Baby" on command.
If anything, the nineties celebrated blues as a living tradition, rather than a dead language from America's pasteven as the eighties hinted at it, the past decade has moved closer to it. Even the most musically ignorant person can identify a certain sound and style with the blues, which, thankfully, people are starting to realize is not to be confused with jazz. Ad agencies used John Lee Hooker in a Pepsi commercial and (posthumously) Howlin' Wolf for a Gap billboard, reminding us that the late blues giant "wore khakis." The bad-bar-band angle of the blues is still with us, but new angles are beginning to surface. And even as Buddy Guy searches for a new space for his club, look at it this way: At least Chicago's tourism board now has something to brag about other than Al Capone.
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