Friday, August 12, 2011

Fat Possum cuts the crap




Fat Possum Records is a label you gotta love just for the name. My other favourite blues label name is Blind Pig Records. Fat Possum wins out over Blind Pig because the blues on Fat Possum is really downhome, primitive and unlike a lot of stuff I'd heard before. Blind Pig artists have a much more sophisticated sound and approach to their blues. Fat Possum bluesmen look, sound and are very rural. The blues they make is electric but the music sounds as if comes from parts of the backwoods where they don't have electricity.


I read about Far Possum. How, not unlike the birth of Alligator Records, a young White guy founded Fat Possum to record the music of some very obscure country bluesman. These were guys whom time had passed by. They were still making blues the way it had been played in the rural juke joints for many years while blues went uptown and got all sophisticated and commercial in the hands of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B B King, Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan to outline just a brief history of time.


Since 1992 Fat Possum has given us Junior Kimbrough and R L Burnside (once backed by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and T-Model Ford who sounded mean as hell and twice as unsophisticated. They rocked the blues pretty good and made as cathartic a racket as any punk rocker.


The first handful of Fat Possum albums I saw in Cape Town, a couple of R L Burnside records, were rather expensive for my taste, especially for blues records and I passed them by. Then I found the debut, and possibly only, album by Paul "Wine" Jones who is probably in the second league of Fat Possum artists and who truly has an excessively simplistic wah wah guitar style that makes me think of my own capabilities. How on earth and why Jones made the wah wah pedal his own is a mystery. Perhaps he found a second hand pedal in a local pawnshop and when he tested it he realised the noise it made could set him apart from his peers.


Even with the wah wah pedal Jones is no Jimi Hendrix, Steve Stills or Eric Clapton and the description unholy, over-amped roar fits his guitar playing. The backing is as simplistic and furious and his huge echoed bellow of a voice doesn't so much sing as chant the very straightforward lyrics. Jones is no poet and he mixes and matches traditional blues phrases with this own witticisms.


Paul "Wine" Jones makes riveting, though limited music. Over the length of an album the schtick pales. The ideal setting for a Paul "Wine" Jones tune is amidst a collection of other acts on Fat Possum, such as Not The Same Old Blues Crap, released in 1997.


T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, R L Burnside, The Jelly Roll Kings and other more obscure names feature on this album. Not Paul "Wine" Jones, though.


Kimbrough does music that can be as lonesome as any of the solo John Lee Hooker sides or as relentless as Howlin Wolf's Memphis band with Willie Steele on guitar. Burnside sounds feral and extremely dangerous even when unarmed. The Neckbones and The Jelly Roll Kings are juke joint houserockers. Where The Neckbones, with "Crack Whore Blues", are as in your face as their song title suggests, the Jelly Roll Kings swing like a cool jazz combo with extra boogie backbeat.


Then there is Elmo Williams who does a dirty guitar boogie, backed by rudimentary drums (that kind of drumming is par for the course for Fat Possum artists) and almost atonal mouth harp. Williams could be a Hound Dog Taylor without slide guitar and his boogie is relentless, motorvating and just dares me to get up and dance in a silly, yet energetic fashion. Perhaps an album's worth of this fierce boogie would be too much, but damn it, one track ain't enough.


Robert Cage does a wordless chanting blues backed by alternately pounding and slicing acoustic guitar. This is the way to resolve the age old conundrum of avoiding blues clichés


Hasil Adkins closes the album on what sounds like an old timey hillbilly song to me. It even has a spoken bit where Adkins get all maudlin over the memories of his long gone love one, and if that is not the true sign of deep country, I do not know what is. The acoustic guitar and thudding drum are as simple as any of the blues tracks and the entire lyric is something like your memories are still loving me." Tear-jerking brilliant.


On the strength of this compilation I would seek out more of Kimbrough, Burnside and the Jelly Roll Kings and probably Elmo Williams too. At 44 minutes the CD is about the same length as records used to be and as a teaser it delivers a lot and promises a great deal more. That is what a good compilation is all about.


Whether the Fat Possum artists have ever become fat cats on the strength of their releases on this label is doubtful. Even severely primitive bluesmen will sell only so many records. If it ain't commercial it won't get on MTV and it won't be on the Disney Channel.


That's all right with me. These blues deserve attention, respect and, most of all, pure and untrammelled enjoyment.



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