R.L. Burnside Reduces The Blues To Its Basics

Club show with his trio shows off 72-year-old Mississippian's gutbucket style.

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

Mattie" (RealAudio

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."