Way Too Blue

Do you know the way to blue? This guy does.

What? The Canadian rapper guy?
Not that one. The other one.

Like Nick Drake, I’ve got to assume that most people who’ve suffered the effects of a stroke – and their loved ones – are familiar with the blues. And some of them may even look out the Blues as a form of therapy. I can’t locate the exact quote, but someone once said

It’s a sad music that makes you feel happy.

So it was that Mrs Stroke Bloke and I went along with a couple of friends to a show put on by the Edinburgh Blues Club on Friday.

[Extra time to waste on Labor Day (US)? Get more apoplexy here.]

The headliners were Robbie Hill and his band. If I’ve picked everything up correctly, Robbie is a Scotsman from Leven in Fife who lives in Helsinki. Which, to be fair, sounds like a pretty good recipe for cooking up the blues.

Yet, not that alcoholic. Because of the price – how depressing.
“I mean, it’s dark all the time! What’s wrong with you?”

There is, I suppose, something comforting about the form. A blues scale establishes where the next note is likely to fall. And the classic 12-bar form signals its intentions pretty clearly through rhyme, repetition, and structure.

And yet, as we waited for the band, I turned round to my friend and declared – very much in the vein of the self-important music-head –

I’m not much one for the boogie-woogie or swing-inflected blues. I want murder, hurricanes, and burning buildings.

No, that's clearly a train entering a tunnel.
Will this do?

Also, “a guitar sound that sounds like tearing a hole in the sky.” (I know. 🙄) Well, Robbie Hill certainly provided that.

Yet almost four years post stroke, I don’t listen to much blues. In fact, in the years leading up to 2012, my tastes had moved away from formal blues into different types of songs of alienation and repetition. More overtly angry, a lot of the time. So, as I sat in The Voodoo Rooms, I began to wonder what path had led me to make these ridiculous declarations to my friend.

After a brief softening-up by Cream, I suppose it was The Robert Cray Band that got my teenage self interested in blues music when I read someone raving about them in Q magazine.

Ginger Baker *was* in Cream with a guy from Bishopbriggs.
“I’ll soften you up, you little prick.”

At this point, The Robert Cray Band was pretty soulful. I saw them touring Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and started digging deeper, back to Who’s Been Talking and Bad Influence.

My interest was piqued, and as a young teenage boy with aspirations to play the guitar I then kept coming across references to other touchstones I should listen to. Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy was all over British TV, soundtracking a Levi’s advert.

And that sound steamrollered everything in its way. It wasn’t selling 501s. It was selling brain surgery. From that point on, all music of whatever type had to have a glint of whatever the hell it was that sound had.

From Muddy Waters, the music press again quickly filled in the next jump, to Howlin’ Wolf. And I suppose that it was Chester Arthur Howlin’ Wolf Burnett  and his Killing Floor and Natchez Burnin’ that defined what I still want to hear somewhere, when I hear blues music – murder, hurricanes, and burning buildings.

Jimi Hendrix does a version of Killing Floor which sounds – and looks, boa and all – quite different to the Howlin’ Wolf version. His Red House, though – evolved from Albert King’s Travelin’ to California – is described by Keith Shadwick as “one of the most traditional in sound and form of all his official recordings.”

Yet that’s where the need for that tearing guitar comes from.

And at the same time, there’s that comforting blues scale and a strict 12-bar structure structure. And a happy ending, of a sort, for the narrator, bringing us to the end of this post. I hope you’ve gotten some happiness from these blues. If you’ve got a favourite example of the form, do share, and complete a human connection.

Till next time, lots of love – Stroke Bloke.

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4 thoughts on “Way Too Blue

  1. So I’m not a huge blues fan. A little srv every now and then is fine but right now I’m listening to arca’s “xen” which is not that. And as you know holly herndon’s platform was a fave of 15. So take all this with a grain of salt but:

    1: All of led Zeppelin. I mean that’s some high quality cultural appropriation there. It’s like the British museum of blues music. And it’s great. I think I’ve listened to lz4 more than any other album.

    2: if you like cream watch “beware of mr baker” which is amazing. He played with fela kuti after cream. And those 70s fela kuti records are very good.

    3: a good alt-country song never goes amiss. I suppose you can squint and get from the blues to uncle Tupelo. But it’s a bigger stretch to Yankee hotel foxtrot, which as you know I love

    4: and the whole question of “the blues” is a bit odd since so much modern pop music is based on the stuff folks did in the 50s when they started stealing it. Lots of Beatles songs are 1-4-5 or Variations there on. As are some nb songs. So how far do you squint and say it’s the blues? Sort of like baroque counterpoint showing up in Beethoven and Shostakovich.

    5: finally my favorite bit of music with blue in the title is https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mW_7gRH7ASE

    1. Hell yeah on Fela. Lady, Shakara, Gentleman, Water Get No Enemy, Sorrow Tears & Blood, No Agreement, and many more. Very indirectly related to American blues, by way of James Brown (Fela studied in L.A. in the ’60s), but damn good stuff.

  2. Blues Notes:

    1. Junior Wells – Hoodoo Man Blues. Favorite blues album of all time. Very simple sound, perfectly evoking a late late-night show in a small smoke-filled nightclub. Very low-key and mellow (at times), so it won’t meet your “overt anger” test.

    2. Buddy Guy – A Man and the Blues. Second favorite blues album by favorite blues artist of all time (Buddy also plays on Hoodoo Man Blues). More sad-desperate than angry-desperate. Some excellent tortured singing and guitar-playing, plus killer from piano from Otis Spann.

    3. Howlin’ Wolf. The best blues vocals, period. The man knows the blues.

    4. Jimi Hendrix – BBC Sessions. Jimi slashed-and-burned through a handful of excellent blues covers for the Beeb, including a kick-ass version of Killing Floor. Two-and-a-half minutes of blues tornado, it’ll rip your house from the foundation.

    5. Led Zeppelin – “When the Levee Breaks”. Sometimes Zep’s blues histrionics didn’t work so well, or got old fast. Then there’s When the Levee Breaks, which is truly sublime and magnificent. A rare example of white musicians equaling their black peers in the art form. If I want murder, hurricanes, and burning buildings, this is the closing track for the apocalyptic blues playlist.

    1. Thanks, Marcelo! I mention how chuffed I am to get these different perspectives on the blues from you and Paul in this week’s Tiny Letter. Which is on female surrealists, weirdly enough. (If you’re ever bored at work, that conversation carries on here. ;o) )

      Great stuff there, man. And, yes, great sounds. That Junior Wells-style harp is the hook to bring me back in, just when I thought I was out. And I think Levee was probably lurking in my hedgerow when I wrote this post. My pal Andy organized a trip to see Lez Zep when we lived in the city. He correctly said on Facebook recently …those girls truly channel the band, right down to the way they play and move. Then he went on:

      But last night I saw Bustle In Your Hedgerow and I can say that they are without a doubt the greatest band there is that plays Zeppelin songs. They’re more than a tribute band. They make the songs their own, play extended jams (like a 20-minute version of Dazed and Confused). I’ve seen them several times over the years and they have gotten better and better every time. I’m never going to miss one of their shows ever again.

      (For more gentle-minded folks, the same exact band also plays as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, a Grateful Dead cover band.)

      Sounds like a night out.

      And I’m reminded of a bit where Stewart Lee talks about Scottish people getting drunk and angry and fighting – or always sounding like they’re drunk and angry and fighting – because feeling an emotion is so novel. Anger will do, in lieu of any other possibility!

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