27 January 2009

Reading Rock: Lost Highway (6), Bobby "Blue" Bland

Growing up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, there weren't many opportunities for "real" live music. There were the bars, and a few local (mostly cover) bands. My sister was in the high school choir, for what it was worth, and during my middle school years, a gothic/electronica club opened downtown that brought in a band every now and again. The main sources of professional live music were the universities (UW-La Crosse and Viterbo) and the civic center. As was to be expected, the universities tended towards upper-middlebrow culture--jazz, polite folk, anything with harps. The civic center was where the action was.

In his contribution to the 33 1/3 series (on the Replacements' Let it Be), Colin Meloy (of the Decemberists), who grew up around Helena, Montana, speaks of a similar scenario. While in middle school, he finds himself caught between two worlds--he watches "120 Minutes" and clips concert announcements from the New York Times for Depeche Mode and Echo & the Bunnymen, but when presented with the opportunity, he snaps up concert tickets to a Nylons show, starved for live music. He hates it, but is strangely fascinated by the performance--particularly the sexuality, and the effect it has on a female classmate. From what I can make of it, it's like a second-hand rock experience for Meloy--even if the Nylons are terrible, derivative schlock, seeing their performance crystallizes the power music has for him. If these guys can get the girls screaming, what might Westerberg be capable of?

For me, there were two similar shows, one well attended (like Meloy's) by my school cohort and the focus of youth culture in my town for some weeks, and the other largely unnoticed by my peers. In 1998, I saw Aerosmith live in concert (I still have the tee-shirt--find me on the right day and I'll flash it to you). While, like many a weakly-mustachioed boy, I was a fan of classic rock, this was the Armageddon-soundtrack, Diane Warren-singing Aerosmith. They played the old hits, but the girls, well, they didn't want to miss a thing, and Messers Perry and Tyler ensured them they wouldn't. It was a rote performance--a small scale version of rock stardom for the small stage of a small town. And when they packed up and left, we all sat around in first period algebra and spoke of having our worlds rocked--the way the bass felt in our bodies, the cheap beer that had been spilled all over us, the crowd-surfing (!?!). It was all a lot for La Crosse. But even then, I think I realized it was (as would have any other of the classic rock bands that made up most of my daily rotation those days) a simulacra of what I was really looking and hoping for, a shadow of rock, but not the thing itself.

The better show was the one I saw a year earlier at the same civic center. The B.B. King Big Band and Review was nothing I expected from the blues (a genre I knew exclusively from CDs), although as I've gotten older, I've realized just how typical of the modern blues it is. I sat in the 5th row, surrounded by baby boomers--the youngest non-chaperoned person in my line of sight. Much like the Bobby "Blue" Bland gig described by Guralnick, the show opened with extended vamping by the horn-laden "Big Band," purveyors of a half-jazz/half-jump blues sound that, while pleasant, wasn't anything special. It was bland, generic blues for almost an hour before King came on stage. While it was one helluva show-business entrance, the 45 minute set-as-payoff was both moving and disappointing at once. B.B. is a master showman, and while his singing is not what it was in the mid-1970s, his guitar style has held up reasonably well, and he played those single notes with impeccable phrasing and smooth interaction with his band. But even then (and I'm not shitting you--I did actually think this, or at least as reasonably inarticulate version of this, at the time), I think I realized just how far this music was from the stuff I'd fallen in love with on record. And I still loved it. But for the B.B. King Big Band and Revue, the music had become something different--something that could work for mid-sized audiences in Wisconsin.

This was a transition that, by the mid-1970s, Bobby "Blue" Bland was in the midst of making, and the growing pains were evident. Guralnick clearly thinks the world of Bland and his music (the only other places in the book where his fandom oozes through the cracks are when he talks about Charlie Rich and James Talley), and the man he portrays is having a hard time with the evolution. His band is in flux, he's still playing venues smaller than his stature merited, and his style of music has gone out of fashion (again? The point of course, being that his career has spanned enough eras that this wasn't the first time). His early tracks (which, I should point out, I had never heard before reading this book for the first time several years ago) are a revelation--tough, muscular guitar playing with tight horns--and of course, that voice. It wouldn't be Guralnick if it wasn't transitional music--sort of halfway between Wynonie Harris and Muddy Waters, a non-gospel bridge from the blues to early soul. In any case, it's my favorite of what I've discovered off this little project so far. It's got soul, you can use it to advance a claim about the history of American pop music, and he's the last artist in the "Honky Tonk Heroes" section. Look out for: 1) the complete Reading Rock: Lost Highway, pt. 1 ("Honky Tonk Heroes") .zip file round-up, and 2) the first post from Lost Highway (2), "Hillbilly Heroes."

Bobby "Blue" Bland is 79 years old today. Sing it.

Al Green - Love and Happiness
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Further Up the Road
Bobby "Blue" Bland - I Smell Trouble
Bobby "Blue" Bland - It's My Life, Baby

Rev. C.L. Franklin - The Eagle Stirreth His Nest
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Little Boy Blue
Bobby "Blue" Bland - I'll Take Care of You
Bobby "Blue" Bland - I Pity the Fool
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Cry, Cry, Cry

Charlie Rich - Who Will the Next Fool Be?
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Who Will the Next Fool Be?
Bobby "Blue" Bland - You're the One that I Adore
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Call on Me
Bobby "Blue" Bland - Loneliness Hurts

Posted by Brandon

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