Magazine Features Music

Outlaw Blues

Originally featured in Blues Magazine 2016

It’s an uncharacteristically warm night in Dublin, the heat amplified by the large crowd wedged into the small basement bar of The Thomas House. On stage, it’s like watching a wild animal unleashed from captivity. Chris Monichen, front man from Las Vegas’ Delta Bombers, howls like the bastard child of Joe Cocker and Howlin Wolf. Swigging from a bottle of whiskey, Monichen’s performance is electric. The sound is raw but the band is tight. As he belts out the lines of Lock The Door, a boisterous ode to the joys of solo boozing, the crowd whoops and hollers in a frenzied mass. Everyone is spellbound by the energetic and raucous sound. This is anything but the same old blues crap.

Once considered dangerous and the preserve of outlaws and outcasts, the blues today has veered into distinctly safe territory. The music has long shaken off its rebellious image and been accepted by the polite classes. 

Today’s generation of youth would be forgiven for thinking blues started and ended with Joe Bonamassa. And while he has an undeniable talent and a technical prowess that puts even the most accomplished bluesmen to shame, he’s also polished, produced, and heavy on guitar solos. For those who prefer their blues down ‘n’ dirty, Bonamassa and his ilk just don’t cut it. The bluesmen of yore sang with a grit that you could feel in your bones. When Leadbelly sang, it was as though his very life depended on it. He didn’t just sing, he wailed, and seventy-five years afterwards, his recordings still have a profound affect on audiences. Can anyone make the harmonica weep with the same veracity as Little Walter? Does any modern musician incite the same illicit feeling that Howlin Wolf did? 

Originating from the cotton fields of the United States Deep South, the workers sang the blues as they picked cotton, giving rhythm to the drudgery of their work as they toiled the fields. The uncomfortable issues of sex and murder, often themes in blues songs, ensured the music remained the preserve of society’s outlaws and outcasts for much of the first half of the 20th century. Due to the often graphic subject matter, ‘dirty blues’ was often banned from radio and only available on a jukebox. Lucille Bogan’s Shave ‘Em Dry was described as “by far the most explicit blues song preserved at a commercial pre-war recording session”. Further North in Chicago, the men of Chess Records were far from choirboys. Willie Dixon first served time, for stealing plumbing fixtures, at the Ball Ground County Farm at the age of twelve. Howlin Wolf was infamous for beating on his guitarist Hubert Sumlin and as for Little Walter, the man thought nothing of discharging his firearm if anyone so much as looked sideways at him. His song, Boom Boom, Out Goes the Light, could easily have been autobiographical, the lyrics planning the murder of a lover he’d grown tired of. “I never been so mad before When I found out she ain’t mine no more, If I get her in my sight Boom, boom, out go the lights.” Later, British blues artists including Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones were renounced for their overtly sexual material and lack of morals. The bands were repeatedly arrested, banned from hotels and even, in Mick Jagger’s case, entire continents. It’s difficult to equate the musicians’ outlaw past with a man who in 2003 was presented a knighthood from the Queen.

Go to many a blues club around Europe today and the same tired old numbers are rehashed, slow blues numbers sang with little sincerity or feeling, musicians regurgitating the same old standards since the late 1960s. However, it’s not all bad news for those of us that like our blues with a bit more filth and fury. The last decade has seen an explosion of a new breed of blues artists bringing back the excitement for which the music was once renowned. An energy and raw guttural sound is waking up the scene: Outlaw blues. Taking their lead from Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records in the 1990s, today’s artists including Left Lane Cruiser and Henry’s Funeral Shoe are packing out venues with their scuzzy sounds. A decade of digital and lackluster live sets has left many music fans longing for an outlet, a fierce and immediate sound, a live performance that’s as much about the energy and the crowd as it is the technical proficiency of the musicians. 

If anyone can recreate that sincerity and intensity captured by the bluesmen of yore, it’s the Delta Bombers. The Las Vegas band has been signed to California’s Wild Records since 2008. Primarily known as a rock n’roll label, Wild Records also do a strong line in bluesier acts including The Rhythm Shakers and The Delta Bombers, both of whom are gaining recognition for their blues chops. Just a few days after their heady Dublin performance, I catch The Delta Bombers at London’s Ace Café. It’s a wet Wednesday but even that can’t dampen the spirits of what’s a normally very hard to please London crowd. The band pull out another super charged performance.  An aggressive thump of upright bass lends force without compromising the rhythm of their unhinged, bourbon fueled performance. They’ve played over 200 dates this year. Just how to they keep pulling these performances out of the bag without getting jaded? They do, confides Andrew Himmler, the band’s lead guitarist, but just with the usual frustrations of life on the road.  “Fortunately we never ever become jaded performing…..Playing on stage is our chance to let all of that frustration out and we do our best to make sure the crowd gets their money’s worth because our shows are ultimately about them and the time that they have”. The band are shaking up the boring old scene and giving fans something different. “Modern blues bores me to tears. It’s a very sad thing. 9 times out of 10 when ‘blues’ is displayed on a flyer you have the same dudes playing the same song in the same way over and over and over. It’s been like this since the 70’s. Most modern blues just isn’t sincere…. But there is hope: I’ve seen some of the most amazing performances of blues, soul and rock and roll at an even sub-underground level” he adds, when I ask his thoughts on why modern blues has become so sterilised and boring.

Three months and over three thousand miles away and I’m in Clarksdale, Mississippi, birth home of several blues luminaires including Ike Turner and Son House. A trio of electric guitars on a pole marks where legend says that musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for the ability to play the blues. Today, Clarksdale is home to the Delta Blues Museum as well as several interpretive markers on the historic Mississippi Blues Trail. But on this occasion, I’m not here for history, fascinating though it is. Instead, I’m here to explore its future. The Deep Blues Festival, specialising in what founder Chris Johnson refers to as “alternative and outsider” blues, takes place over three days in October. On stage are Left Lane Cruiser, the Indiana based trio signed to California’s Alive Naturalsound Records. Led by founding member Freddy J IV (aka Joe Evans) on vocals and slide guitar, Left Lane Cruiser have been offering testimonial to the grit and grime of outlaw blues since 2004. The band plays heavy and dirty, incorporating a slice of stoner rock into their brutal sound. Not unlike Five Horse Johnson, the Ohio based band that also blend their liquor-fueled influences into a stoner rock/blues hybrid, Left Lane Cruiser are reminiscent of Billy Gibbons’ early ZZ Top days. The band are regular favourites at the festival, and it’s easy to see why. The congregation at the Juke Joint Chapel are lapping up every moment as the band rip through songs from Dirty Spliff Blues, their 2015 release along with earlier hits from debut album Bring Yo’ Ass to the Table. Sounding like a pub brawl set to hill country blues, it’s impossible not to get swept up in their electrifying performance. 

The festival has been enticing fans of the alternative blues for almost ten years now. In 2006, Johnson held a small party in his Minneapolis back yard for his neighborhood friends and hired The Black Diamond Heavies and Scott H. Biram to perform. Word spread quickly  – Johnson realised that he wasn’t the only one looking for something different, something more raw and real.  “Most of these bands had almost no popular attention.  I felt a real desire to help bring their music to a larger audience,” he tells me. “The following year, we grew the party to a festival with 18 bands.” The Deep Blues Festival was born. Although still small, it’s now got a cult following, with fans flying in from all over the world. In 2014 the festival was moved to Clarksdale, a homage of sorts, to the blues originators that hailed from

the town in all their rough and raw glory. “In 2013, our festival bands were selected by the people that had purchased tickets to prior fests.  That was something special, because their favourites were also many of mine,” says Johnson. I’m not surprised to learn that Left Lane Cruiser headlined the Festival’s Friday night that year too. Deep Blues has proven so popular that it’s garnered a spin off European sister festival in Germany which will this year play host to Black Diamond Heavies front man James Leg as well as Northern Ireland duo The Bonnevilles, another recent signing to Alive Naturalsound Records. 

At the heart of this outlaw blues movement are small independent record labels, with Alive Naturalsound and Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records leading the charge. Alive was started in 1994 in California by Patrick Boissel, an indie label specializing in alternative blues. Its roster includes Left Lane Cruiser, James Leg and The Black Keys as well as the The Bonnevilles. The Bonneville’s charismatic front man and guitar player Andy McGibbon believes “Both those labels can claim to be as important as any band on them in my opinion”. It’s an opinion echoed by his peers. “I think Alive and Fat Possum have put an entire new genre of the blues on the map. Fat Possum let the world know about the great North Mississippi Hill Country Bluesman like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Robert Belfour, Charles Caldwell and many more. Those guys played a much more raw and dirty style of blues. Full of rhythms and grooves that set it apart from the rest of the blues” Left Lane Cruiser’s Freddy J says.

Fat Possum was, of course, the label that defined alternative blues in the 90s. Its popularity undoubtedly grew in response to the over produced and synth infused horror that was 80s blues. The invention of digital audio workstation software meant bands were now recording by piecemeal allowing for much more post production interference. Edges were rounded off. Producers and mastering engineers, revelling in the discovery of their new toys, added hard-edged synths and electric drums. Even the albums of respected bluesmen like Johnny Winter and Junior Wells suffered at the hands of 80s production techniques as anyone that’s listened to Winter’s Winter of 88 will attest too. Record companies encouraged musicians to meet the demand for this new sound leaving the decade awash with bland digital sounds almost unrecognisable as blues. And like most things that reach saturation point, a backlash was inevitable. Fat Possum founders Matthew Johnson and Peter Lee, then in their 20’s, had met whilst working for Living Blues magazine, the USA’s oldest blues magazine. Travelling the clubs of the Delta, they discovered artists including R. L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and, of course, T Model Ford. This uncooked, unpolished style laid the blueprint for many of today’s bands including Left Lane Cruiser and The Bonnevilles, both of whom cite RL Burnside as a major influence.

The label suffered a series of setbacks over the years and has reportedly teetered on the edge of bankruptcy on at least one occasion. Thankfully, it’s repeatedly pulled through and has remained home to some of the best alternative blues acts today. Bob Log III, known as the human cannonball, has released three of his albums on the label. Log began his solo career in support slots for RL Burnside and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, among others. Signing to Fat Possum in 1998, he really cemented his place in the annals of blues historywith his 2003 release Log Bomb, a frantic and fast tempered album, showcasing his punk blues credentials. His live shows are like no other, illustrious odes to the weird and bizarre. Wearing a shiny human cannonball suit and a motorbike helmet with a telephone receiver attached, Log invites audience members to sit on his knee while he plays. During the performance of his song Boob Scootch, the lyrics of which include “Put your boob in my scotch, Come on get your tit in my drink, Stir my scotch with something with pink”, audience members dip their breast in his whiskey to make a ‘Boob Scootch” before Log lifts his helmet and drinks it. “I love to play guitar. It’s what I do.  Once I am playing my favourite songs, which happen to be all of them, it really does not matter where I am or what time or date or year it is.  This is a hard thing to explain, but when you are playing drums, guitar and singing at the same time, you are in complete control of time.  Time does what I say for about an hour and 15 minutes a night.  It’s like having sex with the universe…,” says Log of those infamous live shows. Make no mistake; Log’s gimmicks aren’t concealing an otherwise lackluster performance or lack of musical talent. He’s a wildly gifted bluesman. As well as hisfrenzied slide-guitar playing, Log plays a kick-drum and a homemade foot cymbal which he custom-outfitted with a kick pedal of its own. This is the man, lest we forget, who Tom Waits said of  “It’s just the loudest strangest stuff you’ve ever heard. You don’t understand one word he’s saying. I like people who glue macaroni on to a piece of cardboard and paint it gold. That’s what I aspire to basically. High praise, indeed. 

But it’s not only US acts tearing up the blues rule book. Back in Clarksdale, playing alongside Left Lane Cruiser on the 2015 Deep Blues bill, are the aforementioned The Bonnevilles. For those unfamiliar with the band, get ready because you’ll be hearing a lot more of them throughout 2016. Following their epic performance at Junior’s Jukejoint, The Bonnevilles were signed to Alive Records “We signed our deal with Alive on the Robert Johnson Crossroads in Clarkesdale, a bit cheesy I know, but Johnson has meant so much to me we couldn’t not do it” says McGibbons. Hailing from Northern Ireland, the duo released their debut album Good Suits & Fightin’ Boots n 2009. They took the blues, chewed it up, pounded it with a liberal dose of punk and spat out some out the most electrifying and energetic music since Muddy plugged in. Unconcerned with “mic bleed and all that other stuff people go to ridiculous lengths to eliminate” the band keep recordings raw believing that’s part of the colour of the record. Their 3rd studio album Arrow Pierce My Heart will be released on Alive Records this year, promising to deliver more of their trademark punk infused blues. At Junior’s, the band are met with rapturous applause. They don’t just warm the crowd up, they set them on fire. Also making their Clarksdale debut are Welsh brothers Aled and Brennig Clifford, better known as Henry’s Funeral Shoe. The brothers signed to Alive Records for their 2009 debut Everything’s For Sale and have been entertaining audiences with their ferocious and fiery sounds since.  It’s easy to see why they were chosen as finalists in The Blues ‘Future Of The Blues competition’ in 2015. For a duo, these boys make some serious noise. And if you’ll forgive the cliché, while they sound good on record, it’s their live performances that they’re really gaining recognition for, playing festivals and gigs across both Europe and the USA including a couple of gigs with Kiss and Lynard Skynard on the  Sixthman floating festivals. “Everywhere we’ve played has been great. We’ve genuinely loved it & there’s never a dull moment.  Holland is funny as they don’t move much and when we first played we thought they hated us but then we sold out all our merch,” says Aled, the band’s front man and slide guitar player. But it’s clearly the Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale that’s had the biggest impact. He describes playing there as “monumental. As someone who started playing music after hearing Robert Johnson it’s hard to put into words how good it was. It exceeded expectations. Every band & artist were incredible. Being among them was so inspiring”.

That UK bands are making their mark is no surprise. As the birth place of punk, we’ve always had a desire for that rough, unprocessed sound. Left Lane Cruiser have noticed a growing audience in the UK since they first hit our shores in 2009 and several Bob Log III fans were left disappointed when they turned up to discover his 2014 London show had sold out days in advance. The Excellos, the London based rockabilly infused trio led by blues harp man Craig Shaw have been shaking up the old tired and staid blues scene for several years. A number of line up changes hasn’t altered the band’s incredible sound. Cigar box guitars and Shaw’s amplified harmonica are reminiscent of his Chess Records influences but the band keep one foot firmly in the present, offering up a new take on old blues. Choosing fellow blues man Big Boy Bloater to record their first album because “we felt he was a musician as well and coming from the same roots, he could bring a discerning ear to us than just another recording studio who ain’t” paid off. The album was a master class in edgy vintage beat bop blues. 2016 will see the band release their second album which promises more of the raucous energy for which they are celebrated.

Recording and production is a topic that continuously arises when talking to these musicians. While many modern blues stars make use of the ample amplification and post production techniques, the new breed of outlaw blues bands are wary of messing with the original recording. Their sound is natural, much like their heroes from the mid 20th century. The Delta Bombers, like all bands on Wild Records, record old school. They’re committed to analog, capturing the band together, how they play and sound as a band in one room. Since their rockabilly filled debut in 2008, each of their three albums has grown bluesier and ballsier. Their third self-titled album takes things back to basics, a thrill for those of us that like our blues packed with grit and emotion. “We love recording but our record label Wild Records has a very unique and interesting perspective on recording and I can only liken it to the early days of Sun and Chess records. You will absolutely hear mistakes in our records, and maybe a strained voice or slightly out of tune guitar string. We don’t do that to come off as cool or with pretense, it’s simply the belief that our label has that recording live and raw is the truest form of music. Our records are about 50% first and second takes….,” says Himmler when I ask how they create great raw sound. Left Lane Cruiser take a similar approach to the recording of their material, the goal is always to retain the true sound. “We record as live as possible. We like to let it bleed. Everybody in one room, facing each other, identical to our stage setup. I want the sound in that room to reflect how we sound on stage. But then the nightmare of mixing and mastering begins. All the outside forces put in their thoughts of how things should be. Compromises are made. After all that, you’re lucky as hell if the track sounds anything like you recorded it. I always prefer the rough mixes over the final product… It’s very rare I’m ever happy with the final product. But that’s what keeps you hungry…. always looking for the next riff” says Freddy J. It’s a refreshing approach in a world with every conceivable recording tool at its finger tips. It also allows fans to get the same feeling and energy from a record as they do from a live performance. There’s a complete lack of artifice when you listen to Left Lane Cruiser’s music, it’s almost as though they’re in the room with you, playing that homemade skateboard slide guitar. They are worlds away from the polished perfection of modern music maestros like Gary Clarke Junior, but for many blues fans, the magic is in the mishaps. Bob Log III takes things a step further, seeking out those imperfections that give his records a unique sound. “I record myself at home or in my shed.  I try to keep it as simple as possible.  Yes I use cassettes, but good ones. When I record, I am searching for the perfect mistake.  If I play something amazing that I can never replicate, usually that is the one I pick”.

What about the naysayers? Internet forums and Letters to the editor pages are full of irate, self-proclaimed blues ‘purists’ bemoaning the fact their beloved music has been distorted and adulterated by punky upstarts, intent on destroying a sacred art form.  “There has always been some negativity.  My definition of blues and blues influenced music is very broad,” says Johnson when asked about how the modern blues world has responded to the festival. These bands are making music for blues enthusiasts, not blues purists. “Some of them get it, but some really really don’t get it.  If someone doesn’t like what I do, I’m not surprised.  It’s not for everybody.  You kind of have to be brave. At my shows, people kick over chairs and stomp on balloons in time to my guitar beats.  It’s a little crazy, all kinds of everybody on stage and enjoying themselves in a sweaty dance mess. Other people just want to sit down and listen to Sweet home Chicago for the 99th time. Those people probably shouldn’t come to my show. Or maybe they should…..” says Bob log about those pesky purists.In true outlaw spirit, he just doesn’t seem to care

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