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Transmission
« Chicago Blues Fest Day 2: Reviews Rivers Known & Oceans Crossed »

Review Sun Jun 10 2007

Chicago Blues Fest Day 3: Reviews

Saturday was in general the weakest day of a very strong festival lineup, but the lineup included some veteran performers who seemed to me to illustrate some contentious issues in blues music today. I caught Jimmy "Duck" Holmes at the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage (sadly I arrived too late to catch Alvin Youngblood Hart, one of my favorite young artists). He’s an idiosyncratic player from the so-called “Bentonia school", so named because Skip James, its pre-eminent stylist, was from that town. Whether Bentonia really fostered a distinct style is a bone of contention among musicologists, but it’s really only important to them anyway. The crowd here yelped and howled its approval for Holmes’ dronerrific single-key tunings, with songs that seemed mostly improvised lyrically. To my ears, it sounded a bit same-y after a while, but his reading of “Mystery Train” was a quite interesting deviation from the Junior Parker arrangement, given a more mournful quality while retaining the train rhythm context. Holmes is a perfect artist for a festival – he represents a living artifact, and presents a style that is slowly disappearing, true “folk” blues, not structured by commercial recording demands or radio airplay considerations. He’s not an artist for blues rookies, though – he’s more what I would call an acquired taste, which requires close listening for subtle variations in tone and rhythm, much more of a troubadour than a guitarist, and at times it’s hypnotic. He’s played each day of the fest, and will play one more time on Sunday.


The main stage began with a perfunctory set of bar-blues by Nellie “Tiger” Travis, who’s honed her act over the years in small clubs, and managed to expand its crowd-pleasing elements to work with a stadium-size crowd. She’s a workmanlike performer, another in a long line of female performers who has slowly morphed their act into a reasonable approximation of Koko Taylor. My beef with this is that there’s only one Koko, and in the Chicago blues market, her success has spawned a thousand imitators, with only a few brave souls (Sharon Lewis among them) willing to break the mold, buck the commercial trend, and move in a different direction. Further, the success of Blue Chicago’s clubs has made the 'ballsy blues mama' into a sort of icon of Chicago blues, at the same time creating a cliché in the minds of many. Travis has a broader range than she showed here, and whether she’s narrowed her focus in her club shows for similar commercial reasons is open to question, but in this set she seemed to play to the lowest common denominator, capped with a version of “Let the Good Times Roll” that was right out of the hymnal.

West Coast swing saxist Big Jay McNeely, a big-swingin’, hard-rockin’, squonk-honkin’ ball of octogenarian energy, served up a vibrant set backed up by the band of Jesse Scinto, one of his proteges, and as would be expected, it was a set of proto rock’n roll R&B from an early master. McNeely still can serve it up strong, and his set was the strongest one I saw on Saturday. I want to find out what he eats for breakfast, because I’d like to have that much energy when I’m 80.

New Orleans chanteuse Irma Thomas kicked off her set with new material that sounded very fresh, including some modernized R&B with a fuzztone guitar and a radio-ready deep-soul ballad reminiscent of her classic work, that showed her voice is still in good form at 62. The newer songs mostly dealt with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, in which Thomas lost her home and nightclub. Unfortunately, following the high-energy set of McNeely, even the chunky syncopated rhythms her band offered up seemed a bit laid-back, and her set seemed to not catch fire with the audience.

The night closed with onetime king of the Chicago bar-band circuit, Magic Slim, a finale starting out with pounding shuffles that reduced the blues to its base elements in a sort of reverse alchemy. Thousands of hipswaying blues fans danced to the midtempo kick-drum-and-bass beat, bringing to mind one of the core conundrums of modern blues.

Bar bands like Magic Slim were at the core of the blues revival of the late 70s to mid 80s, and built a strong following (along with the “big mama” women singers) for “party music”, epitomized by Slim’s stellar arrangement of “Mustang Sally”, a song which has become such a victim of its own success on the bar circuit that it’s now literally banned at some venues, and which along with “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Down Home Blues” is on an unofficial blacklist of most seasoned blues aficionados. The conundrum is that while a wide swath of the public absolutely loves the “party blues”, a significant considers it the reason that they “don’t’ like blues” – it just doesn’t live up to the reverence for blues and significance that they’ve been told to expect from blues. The prevalence of the “party blues” niche was parodied expertly in the movie “Ghost World”, in a scene where Steve Buscemi plays a record collector who comes to see his folk-blues idol at a club date, and finds to his despair that his idol is opening (to a largely uncaring audience) for a popular bar-blues band called “Blues Hammer”, a band with all the subtlety its name implies. The commercial value of bands like Magic Slim’s is that they are a known quantity – very professional, even predictable, in their steadiness, so much so that in the press section I joked with everyone around me that I’d bet $10 he’s going to play “Mustang Sally”. No one was willing to take the bet, and that is the conundrum – the same thing people love about this subgenre is the thing that people hate about it, and its ubiquity is making it the face of modern blues. Whether the people who show up to see that face give a damn about subtler performers like a Duck Holmes or even Irma Thomas is questionable. My guess is that blues is going to need a new marketing strategy for the next generation, or risk losing links to its heritage in a shrinking and much more diversified music market, one that might be ready for niches like Mississippi Hill Country blues. The trick will be to continue to market party blues to those that love it, while marketing a wider variety of niche genres just as heavily to those that don’t, building the same kind of mass following for those niche genres.

 
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