#2 - Black Keys and 21st Century Blues
At least ten years ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I decided to check out a big Indie festival at the Wiltern theatre in L.A. Some of the big names in the genre were appearing. Conor Oberst trotted out a large group he called 'Bright Eyes' that included two cello players. There was an Irish rap band which seemed odd because I wasn't aware of such a thing as Indie rap. Also, Cat Power did a stripped down set. At one point, she performed an ancient James Brown ballad 'Try Me' while wandering out into the audience, eventually settling on to some guy's lap, crooning to him with her arm around his shoulder. Wow, I thought, if this is the world of Indie music, where do I sign?
Anyway, after that, I started to leave even though a few more acts were scheduled. It was late and I had an early morning ahead. But, as I made my way down the aisle, these two nerdy goofs hit the stage. I could see a set of drums and a Fender combo amp propped on a folding chair. That's it! I was thinking they must be truly Indie. Then they began banging out these fuzzed out, sludgy, blues influenced tunes. The guitarist wrestled with his Telecaster, slurred his vocals like he was somewhat liquored up; while the drummer, a tall gawky dude sporting Buddy Holly-type oversized eyeglasses, galumphed around the beat. I sat back down and thoroughly enjoyed my first exposure to the Black Keys. The music was raw, lurching, a bit like knocking over trash cans, and somehow fresh in its approach to the blues. I was totally surprised because, in my experience, the young disciples of the Indie world, and the current pop scene in general, react to the blues as if it's a dreaded foreign language that only old farts can understand let alone appreciate. The Black Keys changed that dynamic. Their appearance suggests they might play in a band like Modest Mouse, but they sound like they're channeling Howlin' Wolf.
Fast forward to the present, and The Black Keys have become big business. They've garnered multiple Grammys; in fact, Dan Auerbach, the Keys main man, just received one for being at the helm of a Dr. John record for Chrissake. A top producer like Danger Mouse has worked with them. They have the audience to merit headlining a venue such as the Staples Center where megastars Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga are the usual sort of attraction. On YouTube, you can catch them performing their latest hit 'Little Black Submarine' before a huge crowd. It's essentially Dan quietly fingerpicking his electric as the gathered throng sings right along with him. You can envision a thousand cellphone lighters held aloft.
How did this happen?
The Autotuned veneer of today's Top 40 music has a stranglehold on the airwaves. Rappers have been sucked into its vortex. Even 'Swiftees' are being served doses of dance-pop from their hero; in fact, she and Carrie Underwood have abandoned any real effort to sound country. Occasionally, a band like Train with 'Hey Soul Sister' or Foster the People's 'Pumped Up Kicks' slip through, plus anything Coldplay will release; but these are skilled pop excursions. Rock n' roll, on the other hand, has seemingly been banished from competing for hit single status, as if the star-making machinery has put a curse on it by decree.
The Black Keys, though, have managed to crash the party. They are a rogue organism that has infiltrated the music scene like a computer virus. Their raw, worn around the edges, distorted, lo-fi artillery blast of garage blues rock has struck a nerve, and the kids like it as much as their elders. The Keys' songs and riffs are direct, ready to sing in the shower, and always recorded utilizing astute sonic decisions that make the tracks sound very contemporary. My only complaint is the constant slap-back echo on the vocals.
The duo was given its first opportunity by Fat Possum records, a label known for releasing albums by senior citizen bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimborough. The result was called 'trance blues'. The tracks sounded menacing, drawn switchblades in the alley type stuff paired with DJ scratching and dropped in samples. You can hear the language of the Mississippi Delta being hauled into the 21st century. The venerable Buddy Guy cut an album at Fat Possum called 'Sweet Tea' that is the epitome of what I'm describing. The second song starts out with a crashing snare drum pattern that bashes out a marching cadence followed by the most ominous rumbling bass. Then Buddy's guitar splits the night with piercing stabs and moaning bends. The Fat Possum aesthetic strikes the listener as both primitive and cutting edge at the same time.
Are there others out there like the Black Keys who are stomping out the blues in new ways? Well, Gary Clark Jr. wowed Coachella last year and got a major label deal, but a group called Rival Sons, that I had discovered wandering the halls of ITunes, is a killer. Try their album 'Head Down'. The first track destroys everything in its path.
Yes, I'm happy to report that a new generation of blues musicians is poised to kick the can down forty miles of bad road into the new millennium. Have mercy!
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