Author: Drew Hobbs
To the uninitiated, the blues is all about hard times, losers, hobos and winos, with the typecast image being of an unkempt, down-on-his-luck, middle-aged black guy with a beat up old acoustic, playing in some smoky backstreet club to a handful of undesirables worse for wear on alcohol and drugs. I’m sure there are clubs all over Europe and the USA still playing host to this very scenario, just as there are many clubs packing them in night after night with that most bizarre phenomenon – the tribute band. But the blues is more, so much more than a ride on the misery train.
Whilst its origins can be traced back to the likes of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Leadbelly and Bessie Smith – all brilliant pioneers – its tentacles have reached out and embraced so much more as the decades have progressed. Once the electric guitar befriended the blues community with artists such as Muddy Waters at the helm, it began to attract young and hungry musicians in this country eager to explore and experiment. Leading the charge were Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Alexis Korner, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and the daddy of them all, John Mayall.
Mayall’s Bluesbreakers became a veritable revolving door for some of the finest musicians of their generation, and it’s where Clapton got his ‘God’ tag from. In the 60’s the blues was booming; amazing players were popping out of the woodwork and paying homage to their heroes in their own distinctive ways. Fans were keen to discover where The Rolling Stones, Free, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and The Yardbirds found much of their inspiration, and this in turn changed the fortunes of the under-appreciated black creators of this delightful form around. Suddenly, white kids got turned onto Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and a host of others and the blues became hip. It also laid the foundations for heavy rock; it’s there in the belly of Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and any other hard rock band one cares to mention – past and present.
The major labels down the years have been quick to recognise the money-spinning potential of the blues. They’ve made millions, and true to form have used everything at their disposal to get it to as many paying customers as possible. Not totally a bad thing of course. I still remember the scintillating buzz around Robert Cray when ‘Strong Persuader’ came out in 1979. Here was a guy who had it all; good looks, brilliant songs, a voice plucked from the hallways of heaven and a talent on the electric guitar that was the envy of his peers. ‘Strong Persuader’ even managed to hit the top 30 with Smokin’ Gun and handed Cray his first Grammy.
Music retail continued to reap rich rewards as far as fascinating characters were concerned. One to strike a very deep chord, in more ways than one, was John Campbell. The two albums he released for Elektra in the early 90’s contained some of the most menacing sounds ever to emanate from mouth and guitar. He sang about graves, hell, voodoo, sorrow and all places in between with an unmatched ferocity. Maybe ‘sing’ is not quite the right word; it was more of a guttural roar from the pit of his stomach, but it collided spectacularly with the sounds he tore from the bowels of his electric/acoustic. On stage, Campbell was a frightening sight. With his tied back straggly hair, the facial scars from a horrific car accident and his long wiry frame, he looked like the last person you’d want to meet on a dark night, but once plugged in and rocking Campbell was an out and out star. He died of heart failure at the age of 43, just as his career was beginning to take off. The blues knows how to wound.
I’ve talked about how the blues helped create heavy rock but one artist actually found more success when he went back the other way. Gary Moore achieved plenty of sales in his hard rock guise but when he released his first proper blues album, ‘Still Got The Blues’, his career went into overdrive. Since then, this most enigmatic of performers has continued along that path, releasing album after album of ass kicking blues. The last two, ‘Close As It Gets’ and ‘Blues For My Baby’ positively melt the speakers with some of the most molten guitar playing ever. Beautifully recorded, they deserve their place in every music fan’s collection.
Blues has throughout history made many vital contributions and it remains a form of music both versatile and adaptable. However, I have heard many times that if it is to survive, then it has to constantly reinvent itself. Why? I don’t see rap, hip-hop or a lot of the sappy rubbish passing for pop these days reinventing itself. What I see is massive media exposure and big budget spends that run close to brainwashing. Blues can and does appeal to the younger fraternity, but they need to be introduced to it in the first place! A case in point is Jonny Lang. He burst onto the scene with an absolute cracker of a debut, ‘Lie To Me’. His voice was big and sounded like it had been nurtured on a lifetime of bourbon and extra strength Marlboros, but he was only 16 years old at the time! I watched him play a sold out gig in Camden Town and down the front were loads of teenage girls swooning and calling out his name. It’s the same with Aynsley Lister, another young gun who can pull an audience with ages ranging from 16 to 50 plus.