Featured Music: Wednesday, May 30, 2002
Great Black Hope

Can Corey Harris save the blues by destroying it?


Great Black Hope

Can Corey Harris save the blues by destroying it?


efining popular music so we can talk about it is, ahem, an extremely significant, highly stylized task that benefits all of humanity in unimaginable ways. (Imagine reading a newspaper with no record review section. What a crisis!) So let’s talk about what the hell “the blues” is. Twelve-bar stuff? That counts. Material built around the pentatonic scale? Sure. Lyrics about mistreatin’ mamas and what it’s like feeling your way through life with only a Bic and a bottle of Beam to light the way? Absolutely. All this said, Corey Harris is a bluesman — though his music can’t so easily be conscripted to the “blues” bins of the record-loving universe. It’s a helluva lot more than that.

And that’s why we should shower him with hosannas. His vision is specific and personal, and he’s not gunning for any accolades from the blues community that continues promulgating the myth that blues music must provide the perfect accompaniment to a night out at the House of Blues, swigging marked-up alcohol, and rambling on about how “authentic” blues rules. It dudn’t. “Authenticity” is really just a matter of technical innovation anyway; if you really think about it, the original “authentic” blues music was born the first time somebody moaned in tempo. And while Harris can’t deliver an album of great song after great song, he often gets close enough to genuine Art in a few pieces to deserve our praise. The two or three gems on his latest, Downhome Sophisticate (Rounder), give credence to the idea that, shit, blues music doesn’t have to be only about big-legged wimmin or based on the pentatonic scale; it can be . . . anything — so long as it’s bluesy at its soul.

Now, whether or not a particular piece of songcraft has that kind of soul is up to you. But you wouldn’t mistake Harris’ new work for that of Led Zeppelin or Busta Rhymes. It’s really, truly out-there blues.

The man wasn’t always this outré. He used to be part of that industry machine geared toward conserving traditional blues style; basically, he was a museum act, delivering “hits” by Charley Patton, Fred McDowell, Sleepy John Estes, and others with his acoustic propped on his knee and a whole lotta pain in his voice. Purists gobbled it up. Compared to the rest of popular music, what Harris was doing in the mid-’90s during the start of his public life was redolent of uncomplicated sincerity and good ol’ fashioned grit. But it was actually the sound of apathy. The big fear of purists is that blues style will be forgotten, especially once some of the genre’s octogenarian standard-bearers with links to great blues forefathers die. The community rallied around Harris, ’cause he was “keeping the flame” — and it’s probably why Downhome Sophisticate is such a statement. Blind Willie McTell’s music won’t die so long as it’s on vinyl or polycarbonate disc. We gotta let the blues grow, progress into the 21st century. This is the implicit theme of Harris’ new album.

The fact that the blues never “goes there” frustrates the hell out of me. Ever notice how there’s no categorical “blues underground” — like a “rap underground” or “rock underground”? It’s all just either straight blues or blues rock (or rock itself). No in-between. That’s because the sound of the blues, like radio country, stopped evolving a long time ago. The mindset of bluesmen who helped contribute to the sound’s stagnation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — and, especially, don’t piss off the purists who make up a hefty chunk of our fans. Don’t be surprised if the stodgy blues institution and its fans turn their backs on Harris.

Not that he needs communal support, anyway. Harris makes it clear on Downhome Sophisticate that he’s his own man — his own black man. Harris, a New Orleans guy by way of Denver, studied African heritage at Bates College in Maine and twice traveled to Cameroon to study pidgin English. Traditional African musical influences abound — not your typical blues accoutrements. “Santoro” finds Harris backed by Davina and Davita Jackson, singing staccato clips in contemporary Afro-pop style over a downtempo ramble. Jazz cornetist/trumpeter Olu Dara, whose In The World: From Natchez to New York is a mélange of country blues and lyrical sensibilities forged in the African-American diaspora, contributes a few slinky lines on the wood trumpet to the Femi-Kuti-esque, Afro-beat jump of “Sister Rose.” Another song, “Money Eye,” is partly in pidgin English, with an Afro-beatish sound, snappy and happy with twinkling guitar lines popping in and out of range and the Jackson singers’ providing the response to Harris’ guttural call.

All of this comes toward the end of the c.d. On the first half of the 18-track disc, Harris traverses old-timey Delta territory with his shiny electric six-string slung across his waist, rock-star style — ostensibly to lure contempo-blues fans into thinking Downhome Sophisticate hews completely to blues building blocks. “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” kicks off with a sturdy, sharp 4/4 beat. Over that, Harris’ fuzzed-out Black-Sabbath-style slide establishes the single, sad, hiccupping melody that carries the song and demands that the vocal melody stick to the script. The tune rolls along for about two minutes without ever once losing steam or direction. It’s an old device, singing the same notes you’re playing, but it’s novel here by virtue of its delivery: No other bluesman could get away with so much reverb and not go by the name “Jimmy Page.” In Harris’ hands, even rockish quirks come off as all blues — that’s musicianship.

White rockers have been appropriating blues technique, if not soul, since the ’60s. And some black bluesmen have been dipping their toes into rock technique, if not swagger, for as long. But the last time any “authentic” (read: black) bluesman gave the antiquated blues sound a swift kick in the ass was when R.L. Burnside, at the request of a record label, allowed his music to be remixed with electronic beats and bells and whistles (Come On In, 1998). Amazingly, no one but college-radio geeks (read: white folk) caught on to this deliriously delicious approach to blues songcraft. Could we see Downhome Sophisticate as some kind of answer? Absolutely. The dream of a blues underground might not be so distant after all.

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