While you'll probably find no music aficionado who will argue that Blues music isn't one of the greatest indigenous art forms to emerge from American culture, it can certainly be argued that it has been one of the more invariable forms of music to emerge in the United States. While the Blues, of course, has mutated from a variety of forms and has certainly evolved into several varied styles, today when you call something "Blues," you pretty much know what you're going to get. The basic chord patterns and mannerisms are tattooed into the art form with such a resonance that few seem willing to retool the mechanics to take the art form into any fresh -- or at least unexpected -- direction. There are masters who take individual components of the music to new levels, but when's the last time you heard a Blues album and got more than you bargained for?
Young guitarist/singer/songwriter Corey Harris may not be dismantling the Blues from the inside, but he's certainly fiddling around gleefully with the established boundaries. Harris, a former street musician, was vaulted into the international Blues scene with his Between Midnight and Day, on which Harris exhibited an uncanny ability to re-create legit Delta Blues almost flawlessly. But even then, there were little quirks in his approach that suggested he would move beyond simple re-creation, and in interviews, Harris always fought against being called a classicist.
While he has clear respect for the music, Harris' latest, Greens From the Garden, takes the Blues, spills it all over the table, wipes it up and wrings it out with a joyous spirit that is, to say the least, a treat to behold.
Greens has the feel of a straight-up, back-porch jam session, a gritty production allowing Harris' organic experiments to simmer, boil or explode at any given moment. Harris is part scientist, mixing tropical exotic rhythms from the Mambo to Reggae Dub, and part ringleader, rolling into Folk, Rock and traditional New Orleans stomps like the party depends on it (and it does). Harris' approach to the Blues is just the kind of attitude that seems vital for taking the music into the next century and Greens From the Garden can serve as a wake-up call to any Blues musician interested in progressing beyond everyone's perception.
At the Blues to the Point festival at Point Park in Carrolton, Ky. (call 800-325-4290 for details).
Wesley Willis is an artist from Chicago who creates both music and visual art that pulses with the ragged glory of the streets of the Windy City (it's what they called "outsider art" in the movie Pecker). Knowledge that Willis is a diagnosed schizophrenic medicated to control the voices in his head provides another insight into his artistic achievement, but often too much is made of that fact.
In many ways, Willis' music is perfectly representative of our culture today. His incredibly straight-forward outpourings have the same kind of impact that "shocking" comedians and films have, causing an immediate "What!?" or "Can you do that?" response (Howard Stern, American Pie, etc.). Willis' actual songwriting style is also culturally representative. In a time when music, movies and television have so many layers of "irony" (as it has now been wrongfully redefined) and post-post-modern twists, the way Willis can completely present a perfect Pop song (with set-up verses and choruses that simply repeat the title of the song) without any sense of melody certainly fits in to the current entertainment climate.
Willis' surreal rants are certainly interesting to listen to, and often, whether on purpose or not, extremely funny. That's where critics come in and say Willis is being exploited by his various record labels who, conceivably, are making a profit off of someone's illness. Willis' current boss, Jello Biafra (former Dead Kennedy leader, head of Alternative Tentacles Records and general counter-cultural icon), addresses those issues in the liner notes of Willis' latest release, Greatest Hits Volume 2, which collects music from Willis various self-releases, as well as a few legit ones on different labels. Biafra says that making music is Willis' life and, more importantly, his therapy. And Willis is having fun and laughing too, as proved by many tracks on the album: "The Vultures Ate My Dead Ass Up" and "Cut the Mullet" are a howl for both listener and performer.
Willis' emotions switch from time to time, going from pure praise and joyful tributes ("The Frogs" and "Jello Biafra") to genuine, near-frightening anger ("Al Capone" and "They Threw Me Out of Church"). But even a couple of oddball cover tunes ("Girls on Film" by Duran Duran and "Amie" from Cincy's own Pure Prairie League") can't break the monotony of the songs. Musically, Willis is a one-trick pony and, while entertaining for a listen or two, it's hard to imagine anyone having this in constant rotation on their CD player. Biafra has perhaps the best approach: He listens to Willis when he's having a crappy day. A little therapy for the listener as well, it seems.
Opening the show is the Chicago band Cats & Jammers, whose latest, Hurray For Everything, is a fantastic presentation of pure, energized Pop that recalls the Power Pop movement of American and British bands in the late '70s/early '80s. They're worth the price of admission alone, but with Willis on board, this should be an enchanting night of slanted entertainment.
At Sudsy Malone's.