By Sarah Bennett
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Orange County ain't Mississippi. There are no red-clay back roads here, no Christmas-light-bedecked juke joints reeking of stale beer and chicken grease, no cotton fields, no shotgun shacks, and certainly no sun-beaten blues players with guitars slung high across their backs wandering from gig to gig.
But you get the feeling that in another lifetime, Yusef Hopkins-Olaitan would have been one of those guys. The 5, 55 and 605 freeways are his versions of Highways 61 and 49, both made famous in many an old blues lyric. His steamy Delta jukes have names like Downtown Disney, the Block at Orange, the Kaleidoscope Marketplace and Metro Pointe—all hoity-toity shopping malls, sure, but the pay is decent, the tips are okay, and people actually stop to listen and even buy his CDs. That's what makes it worth the road trip several times a week down from his Altadena house.
"I call it the Southern California chitlin circuit," Yusef laughs. He plays under the name Brother Yusef, the tag his neighbors gave him a long time ago. When he first started gigging in OC in 1996, he always called himself the Fatt-Back Bluesman, a handle he only recently dropped because he got tired of explaining its origins to everybody.
"People in California do not know what fatback is," he explains. "In Southern cooking, it's like pig fat, a real distinctive, down-home flavor. Most black folks and people from the South get it, but here, it was like telling a riddle and not having people get it until the third or fourth time."
Though no longer Yusef's moniker, the term is still an apt description of his gutbucket style. He's mostly a slide player, his left hand running freely up and down a guitar fretboard as his long dreadlocks wag about; he sings the sort of otherworldly, pained moans that Charley Patton and Lightnin' Hopkins used to, but with a sweet lilt in his voice that makes it all feel okay—timeless, raw and homemade, without a whiff of slickness or soullessness. Listen to his Back At the Crossroads Project CD, and Yusef's approach becomes even clearer—the tunes were written by him, but they all sound like covers of songs penned 70 years ago. It's blues so old it's almost new again.
Sometimes when Yusef plays with his band, he'll go really old and whip out his cigar-box guitar—which is just that, a long wooden stick attached to a cigar box—and his playing partner Robert Hilton will pick up his single-stringed paint can bass or three-stringed coffee can, and they'll jam away on these seemingly primitive instruments. But it's taking the music back to its African roots, something hardly any other players seem interested in anymore.
"Anything different like that, I'm gonna go for," Yusef says. "I just want to be totally different because blues bands today are a dime a dozen—they all sound the same. Often with other blues musicians, it's either too smooth or everything's in exactly the right spot. I'm not trying to criticize other guys because they're great at what they do, but I listened to Keb' Mo', and it sounded like a really slick R&B record. I went to see Alvin Youngblood Hart, and it sounded too much like he was doing Charley Patton. If I do a Charley Patton song, it's not gonna sound like Charley Patton; it's gonna sound like Brother Yusef doing a Charley Patton song. I'm not gonna play it like you know it. I may sing it slow one night and fast the next, depending on what I feel, just bring something fresh to it."
Yusef will take something simple like a "Johnny B. Goode" cover and twist it into a head-bobbing shuffle, a wicked combo of slide and finger-picking that makes people think he can't possibly be making all those sounds himself—exactly what some hear when they first encounter Robert Johnson recordings.
"Wherever I play and people aren't watching me, they come up later and tell me they thought I had a band with me or they think I'm playing to a track," he says. "This year, I've gotten more people who tell me they don't like blues, but they like what I'm doing."
Yusef may be getting bigger crowds soon, enough to maybe bump him off his never-ending mall tour. He's been chatting with people from the roots-oriented Hightone label and was the subject of a huge article in a recent Billboard. Until something definite happens, though, he'll still gamely conduct his regular Altadena-OC traffic scrimmages.
"I hate driving, but I can deal with traffic," he says. "Now Orange County is like no big deal. A gig in Mission Viejo? No big deal. It doesn't bother me as long as I get a chance to play."Brother Yusef performs at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.fattback.com. Wed., 9:30 p.m. Free. All ages.