Late night blues and the Black Keys
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I’ve fallen back into the habit of going to sleep to music via my headphones and iPod, picking something to help me wind down from the havoc of everyday life and back down to a spot where I can fall asleep early enough to not wake up a nearly brain-dead zombie the next morning.
What I pick depends on what I’ve been listening to and what kind of mood I might find myself in, and volume seems inconsequential to this. Sometimes it’s loud stuff, sometimes quiet. Sometimes punk stuff gets the job done, sometimes one voice with a guitar will do the trick. And in the spirit of one voice with a guitar, lately a lot of blues have crept into that late-night rotation.
It’s a throwback to the familiar and all the time spent listening to these old masters from college up to now. It started with Muddy Waters and Elmore James early, but usually my tastes keep bringing me back to Son House and Lead Belly and their vocal tones set over acoustic instruments, casting a spell of loneliness that’s so real and authentic as to defy time. My Son House stuff was recorded in 1965 after his rediscovery, while Lead Belly sang into this particular phonograph between 1942 and ’44, but it doesn’t really matter. It all sounds as haunted and timeless as ever.
Junior Kimbrough was another late-discovered blues artist who didn’t get his due until his golden years, but his work on Fat Possum records in the nineties has become every bit as essential as the established legends who preceded him. His 1993 album All Night Long is a beacon for anyone into that aesthetic, with dark, gloomy songs coming from his electric guitar and heavy voice, only mildly adorned from there by a drummer and bass player.
In spinning around for something to listen to the other night, though, a familiar landing point popped up in Chulahoma, the six-song EP the Black Keys recorded in tribute to Kimbrough and, by proxy, every monumental blues artist who preceded him. Chulahoma, as Dan Auerbach writes in the liner notes, was essentially a thank-you and acknowledgement of the impact Kimbrough’s music had on the young guitar player. “Very suddenly, I was skiping class to play guitar,” Auerbach writes, on his discovery of Kimbrough. “Shortly thereafter, I’d be dropping out of college altogether. Setting out to find my own way. The bar had been set impossibly high and there was nothing more those professors could help me with. I’d found a new teacher.”
That gravelly tone that the Black Keys had on their early albums carries over to this record, and the lineage from Kimbrough to the band was apparent even before this tribute. Auerbach’s guitar is primal when its at its best, and that tone doesn’t flow in the music here as much as it bites. Flip to the second side for “Nobody But You” and what’s found is that open-tuned guitar stabbing and darting while Patrick Carney’s drums stomp underneath. It sounds like it was recorded live (it likely was), and it keeps that feeling and energy that made Kimbrough’s own recordings so powerful.
In addition to that snarling guitar that punctuates so much of their music, the Black Keys have a potent weapon in Auerbach’s voice. His is the bluesy growl of a man twice his age and it carries with it the soul of someone who feels it. That howl on “Work Me,” for example, rolling over Carney’s boom-thack-boom is as primal as it is heartfelt. It sounds real and unadorned and, even if it was recorded decades after the old guys’ work and 15 after Kimbrough’s, fits right alongside it all on the timeline.
It doesn’t sound as archaic as those ancient recordings and, beyond the natural ambiance of not recording in a professional studio shared with all their early work, it’s not necessarily meant to emulate that, either. But it is a faithful interpretation of Kimbrough’s music that’s meant to pay homage and not make waves that the music wouldn’t have already made.
Because they had the skill and taste to pull it off, it works. It works on the stereo and at the gym and in the car and late at night with the lights out and headphones on, the same as all these great old blues records. It’s understandable if this doesn’t extend past the reach of the Black Keys’ hardcore audience — it’s a cover project, after all — but the perception doesn’t change the music itself. It’s slow, nasty and it makes an impact. And now, it’s timeless.
So, on a night where some old blues is required to drift off into the next day, there’s Kimbrough and House and Huddie Ledbetter waiting. And there’s also the Black Keys’ Chulahoma, as natural a choice as anything else, and that’s a testament to its greatness.
Oct. 6, 2013
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com