SAN FRANCISCO Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside brought
some backwoods juke-joint stylings to the Great American Music Hall, a
onetime bordello, Tuesday night.
The ornate nightclub pushed all its tables and chairs aside to accommodate
the young crowd, which pushed together in front of the stage, driving
some of those most inclined to dance to seek a little more space at the
back of the room.
"Well, well, well ... Worth waitin' on," Burnside, dressed in a striped,
button-down shirt, suspenders, baggy chinos and sensible shoes, said
from beneath his blue baseball cap (adorned with the words "Burnside
Style") as he took the stage. It was a mantra he would repeat after
almost every song.
The 72-year-old Burnside has come into wide public view only in recent
years, thanks to a push from collaborations with the Jon Spencer Blues
Explosion, who backed him on the album A Ass Pocket o' Whiskey
(1996), and Beck producer Tom Rothrock, with whom he recorded his most
recent album, Come On In (1998). Come On In loops snippets
of Burnside's gutbucket blues guitar licks and vocal asides to create a
trippy, hypnotic album that focuses on basic rhythms and emotions rather
than on lyric or instrumental virtuosity.
If Burnside's coming to your town soon, don't assume he'll be back every
year. "We just do dates here and there," Kenny Brown, his guitarist and
collaborator of 26 years, said after the set.
"R.L. don't like to be gone from home for more than two weeks at a stretch,
if he can help it ... And that's all right with me," Brown drawled.
Burnside is neither an accomplished songwriter nor a searing
instrumentalist. His songs, such as Tuesday's set opener, "Old Black
excerpt), feature funky rhythms and vague incantations. But,
with sideman Brown ("my adopted son," Burnside said) on guitar and Cedric
Burnside ("my favorite grandbaby") on drums, Burnside's minimalist
approach never came up short. The three-piece band showed just how
powerful a couple of amplified guitars, working on a well-defined simple
theme and backed by robust drumming, can be.
The two guitarists got the most out of mashed-together snippets of blues
standards. Sometimes doubling up on the melodies, sometimes both using
slides, the pair stretched out riffs echoing John Lee Hooker-style boogie
into five-minute meltdowns, without relying on the all-too-common attempt
to raise the roof with endless solos.
The trio played only a smattering of songs from Come On In,
including "Let My Baby Ride" (RealAudio
excerpt), "Don't Stop Honey" and "Rollin' Tumblin'," and mixed in a few standards, including Elmore James'
"Dust My Blues" and Rev. Gary Davis' "Walking Blues," which Burnside
played during a solo interlude. Late in the set, the band played "See My
Jumper, Hanging on the Line," originally issued as a 7-inch single in
the mid-'80s on the University of Mississippi's High Water label.
At a couple of between-song junctures along the way, Cedric Burnside
prompted his grandfather with questions such as "Have you called your
baby tonight?" or "Have you talked to your grandchild tonight?"
Burnside responded with a variety of offhand slams and a toast before
he sipped from one of several drinks he consumed over the course of the
evening. At another point he told a long-winded joke which wound up with
the punch line: "Son, you can marry that gal if you want, 'cuz that guy
ain't your daddy."
"She's been messing around on him 22 years, and he don't know it," the
senior Burnside chuckled through chipped teeth.
Burnside, whose aunt was married to legendary bluesman Muddy Waters,
made a brief excursion to Chicago in the '40s, but returned to northern
Mississippi and worked driving tractors on farms. On weekends, he'd play
for local crowds. Tuesday's show demonstrated how such an entertainer
can get the most mileage out of simple material, to keep a crowd on its
feet late into the night.
Burnside, singing and playing guitar, rocked the crowded, enthusiastic
house without leaving his chair until the show's closer, the Muddy Waters
hit "Mannish Boy," when he got up to shake his hips just a little as he
sang bereft of his black guitar.
"It's just such a different sound," Kitty Bowen, 28, of Mill Valley,
said. "It's like the best of the blues, and the best of some newer stuff."