You know I’ve been down in the Delta a couple of times, followed the Mississippi Blues Trail. Loved it. Can go back time and time again. Lots of graves, headstones, roadside markers. History, memories of bygone and tragic days for the African American community in their struggle for economic freedom and civil rights.
I once went looking for Pop Staples’ birthplace in Winona, Mississippi and found a chicken farm...
And when you go to Dockery farm, alone, and listen to the silence, then press a button and a ghost appears in the form of Charley Patton wailing eerily around the derelict buildings, you wonder if it is all history, no longer present.
Clarksdale is now experiencing a mini tourist boom based on its role in nurturing, no, torturing the blues out of the juke joints and into the mainstream, but there are very few old Blues guys left, and precious few young ones.
Horrible, horrible thought: Is the Blues dying? Is there an existential crisis?
Happily, Cedric Burnside doesn’t think so.
And here he is, alive and well, bringing the Burnside view of the Blues to The Tuning Fork. Humble, polite, enthusiastic, infectious. It’s after all the Hill Country Blues, born in the north Mississippi hills just north of Oxford, an hour or so north-east of Clarksdale, and south-east of Memphis. Nowhere, but, if he has his way, everywhere.
Humble, polite, enthusiastic, infectious...
Cedric's 'Big Daddy', R.L. Burnside, was instrumental in bringing the sound from the back porch in the setting sun, to the rest of the world. Junior Kimbrough helped. Fred McDowell too. But Cedric is our modern-day evangelist, it’s not an explicit mission, just something he feels he was born to do.
Sparse, unorthodox, ignoring the 1-4-5 progression which we commonly associate with the genre, particularly the Delta chapter, hill country blues stands out as an all too rare expression of authenticity. You can close your eyes to the hypnotic guitar drums combo, repetitive but far from dull, and imagine the end of the day on the porch as it was for the sharecropper and labourer alike, a moment of respite from the virtual slavery of the daily grind. Subsistence. Relieved by rhythm.
Cedric Burnside starts the evening solo, just him on acoustic, and we are immediately entranced by the picking, plucking, sometimes harsh, sometimes repetitive pulse of his Blues. Little backbeats, scales, sharp chords escaping for just a moment before coming back to the core rhythm. Don’t stray too far, stick to the message. And the message for the acoustic set is largely Big Daddy: Come On In, from RL’s 1998 offering (“love you little girl, and your husband too... real man devil”); Just Like a Woman from his earlier work and captured on the retrospective Mississippi Hill Country Blues.
“Well, well… well” exclaims Cedric, invoking his grandfather’s classic in-between-song intro style. The audience responds. Homage to Big Daddy, and then the famous joke which I will not repeat... you will have to track it down from RL’s live records. Porch music! Entanglements!
Put on the bottle finger and slide into Feel Like Going Home, an earlier Cedric offering from 2014. Cover Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Meet Me At The Bottom, and hey presto, we are 6 songs in, before he invites his producer, collaborator and fellow guitar/drums virtuoso Brian Jay on stage to add an extra guitar layer to the first offering for the evening from his new release Benton County Relic. It’s Hard to Stay Cool. It gets harder to stay cool when Brian takes to the drums, Cedric straps on an electric, and up goes the tempo.
Cedric, you are the Man!
But also still the boy, a drummer from the age of ten, and a guitarist from more recent times. Big beaming smile, neck a-rolling, I’m just having such a good time vibe which is without a doubt entirely genuine. Watch out for that smile, the girls will come running from miles around...
Now we are into the album proper. We’re “funking it up... y’all ready?” We Made It, the album opener followed by another familiar song which I think is the second song. Pulsing downbeat, punchy, repetitive short riffs, building, but don’t get too uppity, don’t stray from the core, fall back into the rhythmic pulse of the hill country… Typical Day, followed by another Lightnin’ Hopkins cover, Death Bell Blues.
Short, compact songs, no wayward lengthy improvisations. The genre is tight, disciplined, hypnotic (“but in a good way”, says Cedric). Another Big Daddy song: Goin’ Down South, followed by Give It to You. Ok, there’s no improv, but it's all right to end with a flourish...
Brian and Cedric switch roles, and man, you can’t tell the difference... wait a minute, yes you can, Cedric is a wild man on the drums (or maybe we just haven’t been focusing on Brian). But this is what he was born to, a drummer at his Big Daddy’s house parties from the sidelines, and then in the band, at the age of ten.
We get a Junior Kimbrough song All Night Long, and then two final numbers by which time I’m too elated and exhausted to take any notes, so forgive me the absence of titles.
When I met him after the show, I tell Cedric that he made his Big Daddy proud tonight, and he is genuinely happy. Several missions accomplished: Keeping the Burnside family name alive; keeping himself alive, keeping the audience alive. And, judging by the relatively young age of the fans who besieged him for autographs and photos at the merch desk, keeping the Blues alive.
Thank you, Cedric. We just don’t get that much of the genuine Blues down under. It’s touching on spiritual...