Vein of Pain

A week in the life of the blues

ALVIN YOUNGBLOOD HART is one of the best things to happen to the blues since people first started singing about how their sex organs tended to complicate their lives. In other words, he understands the emotional heart and traditional soul of this music rather than merely imitating what came before, as so many of his contemporaries are wont to do.

Hart's sophomore album, 1998's Territory, earned nods from Downbeat and Living Blues as best blues album of the year, even though it opens with a western swing tune, closes with a moody piece that could almost be classified as New Age, and finds time in between for some blazing ska, a Captain Beefheart cover, electronic experimentation and bluegrass—along with traditional country-blues songs, both originals and covers. Somehow, he made it all work together; Hart's like a one-man integration march on behalf of a fractured music world. His debut, 1996's Big Mama's Door, was a more traditional affair, but no less sincere and perhaps even more purely listenable.

Hart's a fine technician as a singer/guitarist, although not quite in a league with Corey Harris (with whom he's often compared) or JOHN HAMMOND (with whom he plays the night of Thursday, Feb. 10, at the Blue Cafe). Adept at the idiosyncratic styles of such blues legends as Son House, Leadbelly and Bukka White, Hart's real strength is in discovering and revealing the common ground they shared as stylists and how that affected what came after them. And unlike blues performers such as Taj Mahal or Ry Cooder, Hart brings himself off as a participant rather than a reporter—there's a heartfelt quality to every note he plays.

While that playing is often impressively muscular (Mahal has opined, "Boy's got thunder in his hands!"), there's also a very gentle quality to Hart's music at times. One minute, he's playing bottleneck guitar with all the aggressive, percussive snap of Son House; the next, he's settling into a sweet, lilting melody, transforming the blues into a lullaby. His vocals share that metamorphic quality as well: on "Tallacatcha," his voice eases into a relaxed yodel; on "Illinois Blues," that same voice snarls malevolently like Howlin' Wolf; and on "John Hardy," he sounds as joyous and virile as Leadbelly, with whom the tune is most closely associated.

Is Hart my favorite contemporary country bluesman? Nope. My ears somehow prefer the more hoarse 'n' greasy style of guys like Harris and Hammond to Hart's relatively contemplative vibe. But in the grand scheme of things, Hart should prove to be the more important artist in advancing the blues. Still relatively young at age 37 and a relative neophyte with only two albums under his belt, it will be fascinating to monitor what he accomplishes in the future.

Hammond, meanwhile, is arguably the best pure musician of anyone playing blues today, in any style. For years, though, it bothered me that this white guy from New York would mimic old-time black dialect when he sang, right down to House's "Ah'm gowinna get me religion, ah'm gowinna join de Baptist choich." But in the end, after seeing him live a few times, it became apparent that Hammond sincerely felt the essence of the emotions he sang about. Yes, his vocals are often ridiculously imitative, but they're also undeniably tortured. Close your eyes when you listen, and you'll swear you're hearing some old black sharecropper in 1928, singing off the pain and humiliation he's endured. For whatever reason, Hammond has been able to tap into that vein of pain and express it in song, even if he has failed to find his own vernacular in the process. Watching him perform in concert is like witnessing a minor miracle of transformation, as the soft-spoken Hammond's face and body contort into spastic suffering and he single-handedly swings like a miniature Count Basie Orchestra.

You can mock the man's background and feigned Negritude, but you can take nothing away from his musicianship. As a guitarist, Hammond is simply without peer in country blues. Possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of styles, from Delta primitivism to elaborate Piedmont ragtime, from spine-chilling bottleneck runs to complex fingerpicking patterns, he's one mean gunslinger of a guitar player. Hammond is currently in the studio with—of all people—Tom Waits producing. The results should prove fascinating: Can Waits draw something previously untapped out of Hammond? Can he harness that boundless energy and talent while mining something more personal and unique? Or will he inappropriately impose his own surrealist vision on this earthiest of blues performers? Time will tell. But I have a suggestion for Hammond's next producer: Alvin Youngblood Hart. Match Hart's vision with Hammond's fingers, and lawd hab muhsey on mah soul, the Earth shall tremble.

One of my favorite San Diego bands, THE WEST COAST PIN-UPS, play the Abilene Rose, also on Thursday night. A good ol'-fashioned honky-tonk group on the order of Austin, Texas' Derailers or San Francisco's Red Meat, the group boasts an arsenal of melodic, memorable originals and front gal Cella Blue, who sings as purty as she looks. Blue, whose voice bears some resemblance to Loretta Lynn's but with a warmer tone, richer vibrato and minus the hillbilly twang (thank you for not copping that shtick!), is a bundle of energy and fun in concert. The band rocks hard but doesn't fall into the cowpunk rut, letting their energy speak for itself without ever endeavoring to be trendy. Guitarists Johnny Smokes and Joe McGrath know their Buckeroos like the old folks do, pianist Jo-Jo Petersen is no stranger to Floyd Cramer, and it all adds up to a good, honest night of dancin' and beer-swillin'.

Another good'er from our neighbors to the south: San Diego's SLEEPWALKERS have finally released their debut CD, Can't Stop Rockin', after forming in 1993. The group comes from the rockabilly/blues/rock & roll tradition of such border-town predecessors as the Paladins, Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs, and Hot Rod Lincoln, but there's a stronger garage and Tex-Mex influence afoot. Which only makes sense, as Sleepwalkers' brain trust Johnny Valenzuela is a Mexican from Texas. Valenzuela is a very good singer and an even better front man; the group has power and intensity to burn. At times, the chops ain't all they might be, but since this album was recorded, the group has made a couple of personnel changes that relieved that problem (full disclosure: one of those changes was the addition of Jerry Rig on guitar, who also plays bass in my band). This is still good, solid, mean-assed rock & roll—and a promising debut album. Just don't forget which side yer bread's buttered on, Rig.

John Hammond and Alvin Youngblood Hart perform at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Thurs., Feb. 10, 10 p.m. $6 (such a deal!); the West Coast Pin-Ups play at Abilene Rose, 10830 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-1700. Thurs., Feb. 10, 7 p.m. $5; the Sleepwalkers'Can't Stop Rockin' is available at select San Diego-area Music Trader outlets.
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