Louisiana Red & Little Victor's Juke Joint,
Memphis Mojo
(Ruf, 2011)

I read here that Memphis Mojo is the sequel to the much-praised, award-winning Back to the Black Bayou (2009). I haven't heard the latter, but I'm told the two discs are much alike, though the liner notes insist that Mojo "is a decidedly more down-home record ... if such a feat is possible."

You could also say that this is blues without a qualifier on the right-hand side of the hyphen, that qualifier being "rock," of which there is not a lick, literal or metaphorical, to be heard. You could stick in an adjective or two, though, in front of the noun; "electric country blues" would fill the job. It's not just the sound of Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter when he's not on stage) and supporting musicians, it's the mix. You can call it a muddy mix or a Muddy mix, but it calls to mind -- as is the intention -- the swampy records Muddy Waters and contemporaries cut in Chess and other studios in the 1950s. This is something you don't hear much anymore, though a few years ago the Mississippi-based Fat Possum label was busily documenting the relative handful of surviving African-American rural bluesmen. Nearly all of those men -- and it was almost entirely men -- are gone now.

An African-American guitarist who has spent a life in the blues, Louisiana Red now lives in Europe, which has always appreciated American roots music far more than Americans do. As the title indicates, however, this one was cut in a city with its own deep blues heritage. The small band behind Red traffics in the sort of loose, shambling arrangements that were the natural language of 1950s amped rural blues. Heard by the likes of some young British rock 'n' rollers (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, et al), it would reshape the realm of popular music in the 1960s.

It was also close to the last of what would be heard of African America's Old Southern Sound, as carried north in the mid-20th century black diaspora. By the 1960s electric blues in Chicago, Memphis and elsewhere was starting to be a whole lot more comfortable in its new home. That music had much to admire in it, but it wasn't the same, and it's been ever less the same ever since.

Consequently, any trad-blues lover who hears this disc will be smitten on the spot. Louisiana Red, who delivers the bad news in a wonderfully gruff, mumbly voice like they used to, has this stuff in his bones. The guys who play behind him know the sound -- and the world -- that the songs evoke. Red wrote them all -- with a single co-write with lead guitarist/band leader Victor Mac -- but one. That one is, appropriately, "See That My Grave is Kept Clean," the 19th-century folk song Blind Lemon brought into the blues repertoire in his classic 1928 recording. But even Red's originals bear the stamp of the straight and natural blues, floating on a Deep South breeze, just waiting its turn to shamble and mumble.

music review by
Jerome Clark

10 December 2011

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