De Blues

SO! I have a new album coming out at the end of May (check here for updates kids) and I have recently been gigging my behind off for the first time in about 4 years. Easter Bank Holiday I managed to do 3 gigs in 24 hours which I don’t think I have ever done and as such I feel the need to expound on the music wot I play.

I love all kinds of music, as pretty much everyone does in this day and age. It is rare to find someone who listens to NOTHING BUT TRANCE/DUBSTEP/BLUEGRASS or whatever. Sure people will dislike types of music but in general you present anyone with a good track people will dig it, man. Personally however my favourite genre/type/whatever of music has always been the blues. Even my favourite modern or popular songs are melancholic. The Establishment has very definite rules about what constitutes ‘De Blues’ and it normally involves 12 bars, syncopated rhythm or 3-4 chords. I call Bullshit on that. The progenitors of this style of music never defined it this way. It grew out of singing to ease the pain and worry, it was mournful yet cathartic, always sad but made you wanna shake yo thang at the same time. Being a miserable bastard I warmed to this genre immediately. It helped my Dad was an undisputed master of the oeuvre and had most of the classics on record. We played as a piano and guitar duo many years ago and was the main way I got into being a gigging musician and how I cut my teeth playing.

Pub Bands do a lot of blues, hence its somewhat derided reputation in the modern age. A lot of those bands seem to be stuck somewhere between 1982 and 1989. They pretty much epitomise what I hate about the Blues. Middle aged men (or young men with popped collars) rattling off learned by rote licks on a Stratocaster with the cold dead eyes of an ‘Blues-Matron 3000’. To me, that ain’t the Blues. The Blues hurts. It howls, it aches, it shouts, it hollers, it whoops, it stamps but it never just goes through the motions. The Blues is a shared catharsis: Singing about your troubles to a room full of people with the same problems. I am slowly learning how easy it is to win over an audience with the Blues and how much they enjoy it. Obviously it depends on the mood of the song (a slow one chord dirge of a blues probably isn’t going to get ’em to shake their money makers) but in general people like to empathise with a song, I know I do. People are also a lot more forgiving with the Blues. Note to note perfection is not required or even expected, real  Blues needs to be wrenched from the guts and spat all over the stage to mass applause. Or a less disgusting image…

I learned to play the piano first thanks to Dr. John and pretty much learned his style verbatim which was a really stupid thing to do as now I find it very hard to not sound like him when I play anything and, much as I love him, I want to sound different occasionally. I was asked; What motivates me to practice/learn? Sheer excitement. I am listening to that track on the link and bopping away as I type. Boogie Woogie can save the world if you got the whole world at one gig and played it, I swear. Every time I learned a new thing on piano that made me sound one iota like Dr. John, Ray Charles, Jools Holland, I could. not. stop. playing it. (Much to my sibling’s and parent’s anguish I might add) I think that’s the key to anyone wanting to learn anything, be passionate about it. If you find something you want to spend all your free time doing and obsess over you will get good at it. I get some very nice people telling me I’m talented (occasionally) to which my answer is “It’s not talent, it’s a lack of social skills and an obsessive personality”. Playing an instrument is a soothing balm to my day-to-day work and when you hate that as much as I do and are as single as I am, being sanctioned to scream, wail and moan about it is unbelievably gratifying.

I learned piano first and got stuck in the aforementioned rut so moved on to playing drums for a few years. That is harder to practice but I like to think I didn’t fall into the same trap as the piano and have carved out an idiosyncratic little niche for my style of drumming, I would like to be playing drums more often to be honest, its great fun and equally cathartic in a “BEAT DRUMS!” kind of way. I then learned Bass so I could essentially be my own backing band. Bass is HARD, I had a good grounding in piano as your left hand needs to know basslines but being that solid is tough. I can do a good impression of a Bassist but that’s about it. In the last 4 years I’ve learned to play the guitar and have only really come some way in the last year, this was due to getting a better acoustic guitar and a good amp for my electric. Since then I’ve come on leaps and bounds to the point where I am now only ever going out as a guitarist to gigs. This was a practical choice more than anything, not being a driver and such, but for the Blues it is a lot more satisfying. The piano is great for Boogie Woogie which shares a lot with the Blues but is much faster and jollier. The wonderful thing about the guitar and the Blues is you really have to put your mood through the strings. The piano, you just push buttons, the Guitar you physically move the strings to get a sound and that is TOUGH. You have to hit the strings perfectly to get the sound you want and that’s up to you. Very hard thing to get right. But when you DO. Oh my! The beauty of a good guitar amp is it literally amplifies that feeling so if you hit a sweet note everyone feels it and that is just sooooo satisfying.

With this new album in mind I’ve been listening to a lot of Blues lately and have streamlined my top 5 Blues-ists:

  • 5 – Leroy Carr
    A little known Blues artist from the glory days but he wrote the Blues Standard ‘How Long, How Long‘ as well as some other corkers – Papa’s on The House Top, Gettin’ All Wet, etc. If you can find a CD, check him out. Often found with a great guitarist called Scrapper Blackwell, also brilliant. ‘Alabama Women’ is what I see as pure Blues.
  • 4 – Eric Clapton (Pre ’71)
    Post ’71  fuck ‘im. But prior he could kick serious arse. He knew the Blues inside out and delivered it in spades. As the guitarist in the Bluesbreakers he did some of his best stuff, ‘Hideaway‘ is incredible, but Cream clearly had some balls and used the Blues in some brilliant ways. Listen to any version of ‘Stepping Out‘ particularly the Klooks Kleek live version. Incendiary.
  • 3 – BB King
    The man. What I was saying about how you play each note. This man did it. In spades. His solos were short, quiet and simple but still some of the best. And the voice. Oh the voice. He’s still got it too. Nearly 90 and will wipe John Mayer’s ass all over the floor. (Seriously, fuck John Mayer) A true giant of the Blues.
  • 2 – Peter Green
    Probably one of the most overlooked these days but in his heyday there was none finer. Clapton, BB King and Hendrix all acknowledged him as the best at ‘De Blues’ but lots of drugs and too soft a temperament ruined the poor guy. He doesn’t even approach those days now but what we have of his amazing ability from the 60’s is probably the best electric blues you can get. Albatross is a tour de force of what you can do with the Blues.
  • 1 – Robert Johnson/Huddy Leadbetter
    A definite tie. Neither of them invented the blues as some claim but whatever they did with it, it wasn’t the same after. They took what had already been well established and fine tuned it to basically what we have today. They were both exemplary musicians, great songwriters and wonderful singers. Johnson wrote ‘Crossroads‘ and Leadbelly wrote ‘Goodnight Irene‘. Your honour, the defence rests.

Okay, okay, I know I left out Willie Dixon, Skip James, Muddy Waters, blah blah blah but that is my Top 5. They’re the ones that give me the shivers and get me deep down. They’re the ones that immediately make me want to pick up an instrument and play, they’re the ones that make me feel better after having heard them wail and moan about their own troubles and woes. And the blues is not confined to pre-war or 60s revival. There is some really great stuff kicking around today too. Check it out.

I was asked for an example of a cover that surpasses the original. This does not surpass the original but this one still bowls me over. I can’t stand the artist but this is a damn good version of an already good song and if I’m honest, adds something to the original. This is the Blues. Don’t judge me until you’ve heard it:

“Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits” -Willie Dixon.

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