Long blues (was Re: Blues Contests)

Ocky Milkman seether@ROCKETMAIL.COM
Sun Jul 20 16:52:08 EDT 1997

Mike Curtis wrote in part:
> The BEST blues is VOCAL, not instrumental.  A lot of newer artist
> endless years learning to play their instrument but neglect the all
> important vocal.  The coval is the picture.  The instrumental music
> the frame.  Some great blues songs are performed a capella.  Many
> great songs are performed with a solo guitar, solo piano, or even a
> harmonica.  And while there are a lot of great blues tunes with great
> bands, there are also a lot of absolutely putrid blues with great

I couln't agree with you more. As so many bluesmen have said in the
past, a blues song tells a story; it is about real life.

Now, as we are seeing a resurgence of interest in blues (Hallelujah!),
there seem to be dozens of sound-alike so-called bluesmen who play all
the standard licks and then some, who brandish the guitar (usually a
solid body, usually a Fender, usually with bland-sounding, easy to
play thin guage strings)like a gun, but can't sing to save their
souls, who can't emote or bring a story of real life into their music
(e.g., Robin Ford, Tab Benoit). Other than for guitar pyrotechnics and
gymnastics, it's so much posturing or just sloppy crap. Muddy or Wolf
weren't showmen on the guitar, but they knew what the blues were
about; they defined it. And the cats who backed them up knew their
place; if they forgot, God help 'em, Muddy or Wolf would sure enough
remind them quick.

If the vocal doesn't carry the odd rhythms, the three on one and three
on two triplets, and all the shadings in between, that lend blues
their characteristic polyrhythmic complexity and richness, then it
sounds flat, boring, and corny, because the vocal is the only source
of these subtle cadences, which, I suspect, are closely tied to the
rhythms of speech originating in the rural South. Just listen to Jimmy
Reed; the band is mostly locked into a heavy 4/4, the beat goin
one-two, one-two; Jimmy's vocals (and harmonica playing) carry most of
the rhythmic subtlety and phrasing, pulling behind the beat, teasing
out odd idiosyncratic meters. White immitators don't come close to his
sly, natural phrasing.

Blues lyrics capture a state of mind, transcend literal narrative, and
are often abstract, beyond logic--the key always lies in feelings, not
intellect (e.g., "Still A Fool," Muddy).

I live in the Bay Area and am lucky to have a pick of blues shows on
the radio, but some are just not worth listening to because they
feature new releases; Tom Mazonilli (sp?) has one such show on KPFA
Sat. mornings, and there is another show on KCSM Fri. nights hosted by
some sexy sounding lady (I don't remember her name). By contrast, Mark
Naftlalin's "Blues Power Hour," Mon.'s @ 9 pm on KALW, often features
old vinyl and 45's; this show has depth and feeling and is the best of
the lot, by far; the old stuff wins out every time. (KPOO also
features some fine dusty musty blues, but it's a small station and I
can't pick it up where I live.)

I think a lot of folks are playing the blues right now because it is
easy to get by in it, being a relatively simple form, and easy to make
a buck or two at it. I don't think 99% of these folks have a clue as
to its real depth or spirit. I think a lot of the interest in the
blues is just as bar music, something to drink to and get rowdy by.
Long, boring instrumentals are just fill, not improvisation as in
jazz. Even Buddy Guy, always the flambuoyant one, always ready to join
what ever fad is in vogue, played better on his older recordings than
he does now. Today, his notes are blurred and made indistinct by too
much distortion, in an effort to appease the rock crowd with a macho
sound, as opposed to his clean sound behind Jr. Wells, Muddy, or Wolf.
His recent solos are too often long and pointless. Yet he's making
more money than ever before.

The old songs were short because they belonged to the era of 78's and
45's. The only worthwhile long song that I can think of off the top of
my head is B.B.'s "Why I Sing the Blues," a sort of studio jam that
simmers and builds and builds on a solid bass riff.

Skip James would probably shoot your brains out if you tried to make
him play some of the junk that calls itself "blues" these days.

Ocky Milkman

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