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Kind of Blue

The Black Keys and Fat Possum Records explore the new garage blues.

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Young person is floundering in life; young person hears powerfully affecting record; young person's life is changed forever and he or she chooses to align self with popular music. It's an archetypal story, whether the young person in question is a Depression-era black teen in the rural South leaving the church for rhythm and blues, or a disaffected youth in the '70s eschewing suburban, cultural blandness for punk rock. Guitarist Dan Auerbach has such a story.

' Sad Days, Lonely Nights came out, and I just dropped out of college,' he remembers. Auerbach -- half of the blues-influenced two-piece the Black Keys -- is a young white guy from Akron, Ohio. Sad Days, Lonely Nights is a record by Junior Kimbrough, a north Mississippi hill-country blues guitarist recorded for the first time in his 60s by Oxford, Miss.' Fat Possum Records.

'I just liked that music,' says Auerbach. 'When I was in high school and everyone was being rebellious listening to punk rock, I was listening to blues. My dad played me Son House and early '60s stuff, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell. And then I was just trying to find anything raw I could get my hands on, and that's when I found Fat Possum.'

The Black Keys play a raw-sounding, fuzzed-out brand of juke-joint stomp that would seem utterly incongruous on the pop landscape were it not that they have so much company. Their third album, Rubber Factory (Fat Possum) debuted at No. 143 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Acts like the Kills, the Gossip, Mr. Airplane Man and the monolithic White Stripes are re-imagining roots and blues music and gaining the attention of mainstream audiences.

Since founding Fat Possum approximately a decade ago to record underappreciated blues artists like Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, the label branched out to include an almost equal number of young, punk-influenced, roots acts including New Orleans' Blackfire Revelation. 'To me, the whole blues thing is a lost cause,' says Matthew Johnson, founder of Fat Possum Records. 'It became so cheesy, like this big jazz festival thing. I don't have the energy to fight that war, and these kids seem to be taking the torch forward.'

The hybrid roster has created a dialogue of sorts between the old bluesmen and the young bucks, shown on the 2005 Fat Possum documentary You See Me Laughin' , which tells the odd tale of the label. 'We're all from white, middle-class America,' says Russell Simins, drummer for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, in a scene from You See Me Laughin' discussing the band's collaboration with R.L. Burnside. 'That is not where these guys come from.' By pairing acts like Burnside and Kimbrough with touring and recording partners like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Iggy Pop, the label has breathed a strange, new kind of life into the blues, adding contemporary relevance outside the museum-like tents of jazz festivals.

While Johnson was starting Fat Possum, New York City-based blues-punk icon Spencer was hitting his stride, combining explosive punk energy with strong roots influence for a high-voltage version of the blues. His current project, Heavy Trash, maintains a sparer sound than the blowout assault of the Blues Explosion. The self-titled debut on Yep Roc echoes the approach to early rock 'n' roll demonstrated by the Cramps and the Flat Duo Jets in the '70s and '80s, rife with twisted rockabilly, murder ballads and cheerfully dirty blues.

'I'm 20 years in now as a working musician, and this sound has never gone away for me,' says Spencer. 'But it's just now that it's in fashion. It's something that's been going on for a long time -- look at the Gun Club and the Cramps. And in the '60s, you had the Yardbirds and the Stones doing a punk version of blues, and that inspired a whole host of nobodies, like on the Back From the Grave albums, a fine series of compilations put out by Crypt Records. I don't see this as a reaction to mainstream music because this kind of stuff has always been around, but sometimes there's a weird hiccup where some of this stuff breaks through and makes a dent, like the White Stripes.'

The revived popularity of roots and blues may come down to the appeal of the messenger. 'Jack White's kind of cute, right?' theorizes Jimbo Mathus. Mathus, who put hot jazz on the pop charts with his '90s band the Squirrel Nut Zippers, grew up in northern Mississippi playing country music and hearing the Memphis soul, rock and pop being put out by the Stax, Sun and American labels. His career has ranged from the unfortunately named high school punk band Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves to serving as Buddy Guy's second guitar on several tours and recordings.

'The Stones, they were in Seventeen magazine, I'm sure,' says Mathus. 'Rock 'n' roll kind of gets legitimized when white kids do it. T-Model Ford is not going to be on the cover of Seventeen magazine.' He does, though, see an appeal in the rawness of a stripped-down blues sound. 'It's just that kind of dangerous element, this anarchy element, this real 'F--k you' attitude,' he says. 'I've been playing with Buddy Guy for five years and he's very much an anarchist on the guitar. He doesn't like the comfort zone. There's an element of danger.'

Authenticity, however, is a complicated issue, particularly when associated with rawness. Local novelist and music journalist Tom Piazza, who won a 2004 Grammy Award for his companion essay to the CD box set Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues , notes that fetishizing primitivism in the music can be as problematic as paying too much attention to technical prowess.

'Primitiveness of production value -- I think that's something that has a perennial appeal in our culture, and I think that kind of energy will always reassert itself,' says Piazza. 'And a lot of people have had that thought, that the blues represents unmediated emotional outpouring. The truth of the matter is that the blues really came from black people in this culture who had to learn to exercise extraordinary emotional and spiritual discipline in order not to get killed, literally. So it's not, to me, a raw, unedited, venting of emotion. It's a very sophisticated tool, always deeply involved with irony, for mediating very strong emotions.'

'There was always a premium placed on technique,' continues Piazza regarding the evolution of contemporary blues' emphasis on elaborate licks. 'But it was perhaps more integrated in a unified statement. It's like, how many loop-the-loops can you do with your yo-yo? Technique is there to convey meaning and expression.'

The blues that captivated Mathus and Spencer are the antithesis of contemporary mainstream music, where arena-filling pop acts groomed and bred for stardom like baby veal make hits that are frighteningly false in nature. The myth of the life-changing rock 'n' roll record, after all, is a story essentially about finding the truth -- feeling a visceral response to the honesty expressed in sound. "You can't deny it," says Auerbach. "It's honest and it's in your face. Junior Kimbrough is the same as the Kinks -- it's all live and in the room. People can appreciate that; it's honest, it's immediate. People can tell when they're being lied to."

'When I was in high school and everyone was being rebellious listening to punk rock, I was listening to blues,' The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach (left) says. - PIETER VAN HATTEM
  • Pieter Van Hattem
  • 'When I was in high school and everyone was being rebellious listening to punk rock, I was listening to blues,' The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach (left) says.

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