There’s a blues and old-school R&B resurgence rumbling in the indie-music underground, and it goes well beyond the icky thump of the White Stripes. Its first populist signs are fresh albums featuring Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant collaborating with bluegrass diva Alison Krauss and soul survivor Bettye LaVette teaming with Dirty Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers.
TIMELESS: On Raising Sand, Krauss and Plant serve up 1920s blues and pop, traditional country, and rickety old rock and roll.
This creative movement began percolating in the mid ’90s, when the Fat Possum label released the nastiest, punkiest authentic juke-joint blues in decades. Through shrewd marketing, hip-hop remixes, and the support of rockers like Iggy Pop and Jon Spencer, old Mississippi dogs like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough found a new audience of young pups. Those pups — including Jack White — began digging back to ’60s icons like Fred McDowell and to acoustic Delta kingpins Son House and Robert Johnson, whose songs have since been covered by, among others, the White Stripes (House’s “John the Revelator” and “Death Letter”) and Juliana Hatfield (Johnson’s “Malted Milk”).
In 2000, bluegrass got a big bump thanks to the smash soundtrack for Ethan and Joel Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? The resulting rediscovery of mountain musicians like Ralph Stanley, Doc Boggs, and Bill Monroe triggered a bluegrass and old-time-music renaissance, with more new bands than you can shake a mandolin at. Charlottesville’s King Wilkie and Boston’s Tarbox Ramblers are among the established exponents. This year, younger outfits like Portland’s Blitzen Trapper and Seattle’s Cave Singer have stepped to the fore.
Now, it seems that blues and R&B are getting their turn. An eruption of new bands, labels, festivals, and musical surprises like Plant & Krauss’s Raising Sand (Rounder) and LaVette’s The Scene of the Crime is generating cultural heat.
The White Stripes, North Mississippi All Stars, and the Black Keys have been the grungy point men. But a generation of newer bands also informed by the roughshod sounds of the South — much the way the Allman Brothers had been — is staking its claim. Nashville’s Black Diamond Heavies and the Dynamites, Kansas’s Moreland & Arbuckle, Memphis’s Richard Johnston, Oregon’s Hillstomp, and Texas’s Jawbone are among the sharpest new knives in a cutting-edge strain of dirty blues and R&B spiked with rock-and-roll energy. Most of them convened back on August 18, in River Falls, Wisconsin, for the Deep Blues Festival. It was billed as the first punk-blues fest, and its small-but-rabid audience came from throughout the US and abroad. Last year, however, a bunch of Mississippi musicians got the drop on the Midwesterners by debuting the North Mississippi Hill Country picnic in Potts Camp. That bill was mostly traditional, but this June the two-day event brought in the All Stars, Austin’s Goshen, Cary Hudson of Blue Mountain, and the funky rock polyglot Taylor Grocery Band, featuring Kimbrough’s drummer son Kinny. Both festivals will reconvene in 2008.