The Future Of The Blues, Another Opinion - by J. Blake

Posted on 6/29/2010 by J. Blake

(New York, NY)

A lot has been written lately regarding the “future of the blues”. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled “Lamenting the Future of the Blues” where writer Jim Fusilli basically spelled out how the genre is “like an endangered species” (and that was a quote from Buddy Guy). In response to the controversial article, legions of blues supporters took their keyboards (including our very own Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms) to explain why the genre is still “alive and well” and why guys like Fusilli don’t know what they are talking about.

I’m here to say that it is my opinion, that the truth about the future of the blues lies somewhere in the middle. In all honesty it was just a few weeks ago that I emailed our fearless leader Monica with a message titled “Good Blues is Kinda Dead”. As one of the founding members of this writing team and the site’s leading reviewer, I get to hear a lot of new blues recordings. Whether they are mailed to me directly or I seek them out on my own, I listen to tons of “new” blues and I have to admit that very little of it is anything to get excited about…and after a year, I’m starting to find that frustrating. I realize that such a statement may cause a little controversy amongst our readers. Believe me, I am no stranger to reader comments condemning me for my views and asking things like “why is this guy reviewing blues if he doesn’t even like it?”

The fact of the matter is I do like the blues. In fact I love it and that is why I am so hard on it and its artists. I’ve been doing this for over a year and I’ve listened to well over 100 newly released blues CDs during that time. Unfortunately, I can say with all honesty, that I only need one hand to count all the CDs that genuinely excited me. Sure there were CDs that I enjoyed. This site is full of my positive reviews, but literally, only a handful of the albums I’ve listened to over the past year were truly exciting. The many of the albums I’ve heard recently span in quality from absolutely horrible to simply just listenable. Even the majority of the ones I enjoyed are formulaic and full of the same old tricks.

In his recent article, our very own Nighthawk, stated that the “Stevie Ray Vaughan-a-be copycat syndrome passed many years ago.” I’m sorry to say that from my vantage point, that syndrome is what is actually still alive and kicking. Maybe Nighthawk is right in that “none of the winners of this year’s IBC could be described as Stevie Ray Vaughan imitators”, but that doesn’t account for the far bigger majority of artists that did not win the IBC, or all of the SRV copycats that send me CDs weekly.

The question is not can the blues survive? There will always be blues, blues artists and blues fans. The question is can it grow? Can it successfully evolve past the I-IV-V/12 bar formulas and still be considered ‘the blues’, because right now I’m sorry to say that most of what I hear, sounds like the same old crap to me and quite frankly it is not being done nearly as well as it was by past artists and it isn’t even on par with blues albums that were recorded 15 years ago.

One could argue that the biggest problem may be the lack of a definition. Everyone has a different definition for what the blues is. In response to a recent criticism I wrote regarding Joe Bonamassa’s latest album, members of a popular blues forum slammed me for implying that Bonamassa was a blues artist; stating that he is actually a ‘blues-rock’ artist and they went on to basically question my credibility for not knowing the difference. Can we please quit with all the labels and sub-categories? Is anyone really benefiting from labeling somebody as a ‘blues-rocker’ or a ‘delta-bluesman’ or a ‘folk-blues artist’ or ‘a Chicago bluesman’ or a ‘Texas bluesman’ or a ‘Memphis bluesman’ or a ‘British bluesman’…or an ‘electric bluesman’ as opposed to an ‘acoustic bluesman’; stating that “this guy is more gospel than blues” or “that guy plays rock, but it has a blues feel”? Does it really matter if the ‘blues capitol’ is Chicago or Memphis? For a style of music that did more for tearing down boundaries and unifying the masses than arguably any other, we all seem very quick to confine it and label the crap out of it.

Who is benefiting from all these labels? Certainly not the artists! How can anyone argue whether or not the blues is alive or dead, when nobody can figure out what the blues is? Lord knows I hope it is not restricted to 12 or 8-bar/I-IV-V chord progressions, because if it is, we’re all up Shit Creek without a paddle. Perhaps the biggest problem with the blues is that once it moves past the basic formulas, it isn’t considered blues anymore. Both Fusilli and Jeff Fedora (whose views are cited in Nighthawk’s recent article) point to the fans as the biggest culprits in this potential murder of the genre. Perhaps it is the fan’s lack of open-mindedness that is hurting the blues’ future. Perhaps it is only the perception of what the fans want that is the problem. Perhaps it is all of the above.

What I can say is that, for me personally, I am getting a little tired of listening to the same old stuff. Let’s face it, as great as they were artists like Honeyboy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin and even B.B. King are long past their prime. Guys like Clapton can only rejuvenate the genre so many times before we have to take the burden off of his shoulders. A guy like Derek Trucks can’t be confined to the rigid forms that the blues seems to demand and though artists like John Mayer and Jack White, may ultimately have their hearts in the right place, can we really look to them to carry the blues into the future? Yes millions of people are playing the blues and many of them are playing it well, but how many of them are making it their own and not just copying people that played it 50+ years ago? There are good artists trying to help the blues evolve, but they are few and far between and it is getting harder and harder for them to be heard…and at the end of the day, do fans want the blues to evolve or do they really just want to hear watered down versions of Muddy Waters and Holwin’ Wolf tunes and guitar players that sound more like Clapton and Stevie Ray than themselves?

The albums that I find exciting these days are from those artists that really seem to be attempting to take the blues someplace new…or at least someplace different. Bands like Meantooth Grin, Ten Foot Polecats and Moreland & Arbuckle are finding ways to give the blues a harder edge. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears are putting their own stamp on both soul and blues and The Crank Bros. (out of Norway) are delivering their own version of the blues with a burlesque-like sexiness. Yes I just named five recent bands that I like, but when you consider the fact that these are only five out of the hundreds I’ve heard or seen in the last year, the odds are not that good.

This week I was actually looking forward to getting my hands on copies of new blues albums from Elvin Bishop, Rick Derringer, Steve Miller and Cyndi Lauper and though none of them are horrible and I enjoyed things about all of them (and I still may review some of them for this site), none of them are particularly exciting and none of them are challenging; to the artists or the art form. I am grateful that such notable talent is trying to keep the blues alive, but how beneficial is keeping it alive if we’re not going to allow it to grow?

Thus far, this diatribe has been attacking the blues as an art and its creativity…or lack there of. Obviously when it comes to this kind of discussion, it is all a matter of opinion. Clearly, though I do listen to a lot of ‘new’ blues artists, I’m not down in the trenches seeing it live in cities like Chicago and Memphis, where it does thrive as local art form. Don’t get me wrong, I see my fair share of blues here in New York City, but the artists that come here are not necessarily the best…even if they are the ‘big names’. So my view on the subject is definitely different than a guy like Nighthawk’s, but there lies the problem…on a much more logistical and more fact-driven front.

Yes for a professional musician from Memphis, the blues must seem like a healthy thriving genre of music, but for a struggling guitarist in New York City, the future does not seem all that bright. The fact is that almost all of NYC’s blues venues closed a long time ago. The only real blues clubs that are left here are B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill (including Lucille’s which is the free room next to the main stage) and Terra Blues. Ok, two clubs are better than none right? Well let’s add the fact that each of those venues could not be less supportive to local talent. When they are not catering, almost exclusively, to touring/signed talent, each venue only employs the same handful of ‘local’ blues artists for weekly gigs. In other words, the same few musicians play both venues weekly, while the rest of NYC’s blues artists struggle to be heard at rock clubs, playing between an indie-rock band and a punk band. How does a blues artist gain a following when they can’t even play with like-minded bands for like-minded audiences? Just a few days ago our very own Nelson put a post up on Facebook stating that NYC now has a blues jam. This may not seem like big news, but for a town (a.k.a. the biggest city in the world) where legitimately good blues jams have been scarce for years, this news is huge.

This is not coming from a musician complaining about how he couldn’t get booked in this city. When I had my blues band, we did pretty well. When it really seemed like the blues was drying up for good in NYC, I left it behind and joined an indie-rock band and now I’m doing pretty well again…as long as I’m playing, that’s all that matters to me. My point is only, if the blues is all but dead in the biggest city in the world, there has to be other areas where is it struggling as well. If an animal that once inhabited an entire continent, suddenly only lives and thrives in a few isolated areas, it would be considered an endangered species. Like it or not, the blues ‘ain’t what it used to be’.

So even though I said “the truth about the future of the blues lies somewhere in the middle”, it must seem pretty apparent that my outlook on the subject is bleak. The good news is that the future is not written in stone. The blues is alive. If it is doing well or not is a matter of opinion, but at the end of the day, it will only take one artist with one song or album to get the ‘creative ball’ rolling again.

Guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf electrified the blues, reviving it for their generation. The Rolling Stones, Cream, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin took the blues in a new direction, reviving it again in the late-1960s and moving it forward. The Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Winter and ZZ Top also made it their own throughout the late-1960s and 1970s. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray did the same thing a decade later and though I was not really a fan, the 1990s brought us Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Sheppard breathing new life into the genre. The White Stripes and John Mayer, though drastically different from each other, attempted to do it in the 2000s.

Unfortunately, where Jack White and John Mayer failed is that they weren’t game-changers. The artists listed before them took the blues by the balls and molded it into something new, yet familiar; often even evolving as artists past what the genre had to offer, but leaving an exciting blues legacy in their wake. Now as we embark on a new decade, all the blues really needs is a single ballsy guitar riff, to spark the inspirational fire under tomorrow’s musicians. One riff that makes a kid pick up a guitar and say to themselves “I gotta figure out how to play that!” We just need to be ready for the fact that, to really thrive in the future, the blues may need to evolve into something new…something blues purists may not be too happy about.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy: Black Joe Lewis CD Review

Thanks and keep reading American Blues News!!!

NYC blues fans, make sure you check out Mountain plus West, Bruce Jr. & Laing live at B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill on June 29th and 30th!!!

Copyright © 2010 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

Fri: Northeast Photographer - Nelson Onofre
Nelson offers a Friday column of blues photography and pictorial support for the interviews covered by the team.

Jim Stick in Colorado
Jim will be focusing on the Blues Festivals in the beautiful state of Colorado, and the artists that live and visit there.

Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

We head to the big state of Texas! Abby Owen, our Texas correspondent.

Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

Lastly, we have our roving blues entertainment writer,
Chef Jimi.

And of course, we will surprise you sometimes!

Internet Marketingdata recovery