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Friday, May 10, 2013

A Few Thoughts On "Alternative Blues"

While poking around the interwebs a while ago, I came across the term "alternative blues," and it got me thinking about the creative direction of blues in the modern American musical landscape.  Not that this high-mindedness was my first reaction.  My first reaction was more like "huh, that sounds like what THP has been up to lately with the originals."  But when I started to parse out why that moniker seemed right, the train of thought led me to a few other places, some of which have been on my mind for a while now in one form or another but had seemed previously unrelated.

For those, like me, who hadn't heard the term, alternative (alt) blues generally refers to an otherwise not easily described subgenre of standard, or classic, big-B Blues.  All the same elements are in play: 12-bar structure (often enough) if not a straight up 1-4-5 chord progression; typical blues instruments (guitar, vocals, bass, drums, keys, etc.); minor and major pentatonics; that kind of thing.  But the arrangement of all these known elements is often...tweaked, so that the resulting sound is stranger than what a person accustomed to classic blues (like Delta, say) might expect to hear.

If you read someone like Amiri Baraka, whose wonderful book, Blues People, gives a poignant overview of the historical arc of blues in America, you might be tempted to believe that field hollers grew into blues grew into jazz, and that anything that isn't moving further along that trajectory is somehow developmentally arrested or creatively barren.

But even as we witness the slow motion collapse of the record industry--and watch it devour the diversity and originality of mainstream American music in its death throes--new envelope pushers keep emerging, invariably rooted in blues.

Most recently, I'd point to the dependable, if not very flashy, Gary Clark, Jr., and his debut album Blak and Blu; Ben Harper's re-emergence with Charlie Musselwhite, whose latest songs have exposed even more of the blues bone that underlies the meat of his writing style; and the inventively raw chord progressions of Vintage Trouble.  There are, of course, more.

Not that this kind of thing hasn't been happening for decades.  Is there any better name than alternative blues for the ground Hendrix was exploring in songs like "Stone Free" or "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"?  Or for that matter, what Muddy Waters was doing with the album After the Rain?

Still, inasmuch as a term like "alt blues" serves as a quick way to communicate the general contours of an otherwise hard to describe musical subgenre ("grindcore," anyone?), it can only be useful if it's viewed as just that, a shorthand to describe a rough collection of trends rather than an unbending categorical designation.

Which had me thinking further: do these artists stand out as being of-the-moment and their art as still having life not because of their unbending dedication to their roots but rather because they take an unconventional approach to the larger style?  Indeed, their kind of reinvention stands in stark contrast to many blues musicians I've come across who are so orthodox in their view of what constitutes "blues" that their playing is boring, soulless--because there's none of them in their playing, only pre-approved riffs handed down by the guitar gods of yore.  It's a cultish attitude, as if these limited number of sounds were edicts from on high meant to mark the boundary of what can be considered "blues," and it's the enemy of playing music that grows and changes with the world around it.  (And here the old adage pops to mind, about how the wind can't break a tree that bends.)

This isn't at all to pooh-pooh the contributions of said guitar gods (or bass gods, or drum gods, or whatever deity you bow to when you throw on your favorite tunes)--how could I?--but rather to point out that these players set their stars in the musical firmament by expanding the blues vocabulary, not by piously toeing the accepted lines.

Admittedly, "alternative blues" is a pretty inelegant term.  "Alternative" to what?  English blues?  Rhythm-and-blues?  I suspect it was originally meant as an alternative to classic blues, but that seems misguided--a child is not an "alternative" to its parent.  What the term does seem to get at, in its own clumsy way, is the energy and resilience that manages to keep blues alive and kicking in these strange artistic times.

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