Saturday, August 1, 2009

La douleur exquise* (the exquisite pain): the blues.

‘Eric Clapton: knows that I steal his ideas and is still cool with it’ – John Mayer

Following on from my post the other day about figures in past music decades, and the post script which mentioned Motown and the reunion that is planned, I thought I'd carry on down the blues path. On the latest Ben Harper album, ‘White Lies for Dark Times’, track 4 is…and fans of early Ben Harper will scoff at such a claim, but track 4 is one of my favourite Ben Harper songs. Ever.

The best line from the song (entitled Lay There and Hate Me) for me, ‘never trust a woman who loves the blues’ just makes me smile. The first time I heard it I immediately thought about the music industry and how it owes such a lot of its existence today to the blues.

I love the blues Ben.

Anyway. It’s the attitude of the song. The pain, the despair, the getting lost in one’s own world. But it’s also about appreciating what one can do, loving the music so much that you feel the pain of the artist, but also get a real rush from it too. It’s amazing. Exquisite. A good blues song can be the piece de resistance for someone who needs to prove they’ve got the good, or a good blues song can be what makes an artist (Miles Davis, Clapton).

You hear a blues song, no matter what genre and you think ‘I hear ya mate, I feel your pain’, but you also can’t help but marvel and feel at ease at the same time. It’s incredible. The blues is the type of music you almost don’t want to share with anyone. But then you do because everyone should be educated on what construes a good dose of blues!

While not a constant rule, and it would be a dull world without exceptions, the blues should start off with one line of dramatic ‘depths of despair’ notes. Slow, and definite. The drums usually come in after this and then you just get drawn in. A small guitar or piano solo to let us know what we’re in for. The instrumentals should outweigh the singing. I mean, let’s be honest. If it’s the blues, you can’t say much more than ‘I want to drink very heavily right now and keep my door closed because my heart is broken’ or ‘God I’m so tormented and tired right now, someone dim the lighting so I can have a whinge for 5 minutes’. So what is left, but to cut the talk and get strumming/playing the ivories.

Let it Loose
by the Rolling Stones is a good example of how they’ve adopted the blues, but retained that quintessential Stones ‘flavour’ if you like to the song. On the other hand, the John Mayer Trio’s Out of My Mind is textbook blues. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s Clapton, especially after hearing his Driftin’ Blues…although in saying that, it kind of sounds like Clapton has more of a…hmm…steely sound.

Badly Drawn Boy have successfully ‘modernised’ the blues with the song Delta (Little Boy Blues) by injecting a slightly whimsical sound to the tune. One could argue however that it’s because it was written for the film About A Boy.

Funnily enough, Nick Hornby (author of About A Boy) does have a quirky little crack regarding blues and soul: “Have you got any soul?" a woman asks the next afternoon. That depends, I feel like saying; some days yes, some days no. A few days ago I was right out; now I've got loads, too much, more than I can handle. I wish I could spread it a bit more evenly, I want to tell her, get a better balance, but I can't seem to get it sorted. I can see she wouldn't be interested in my internal stock control problems though, so I simply point to where I keep the soul I have, right by the exit, just next to the blues.”

On Love and Theft, Bob Dylan funks up the blues a bit with his Lonesome Day Blues. It actually sounds slightly reminiscent of Bad to the Bone which I found slightly disturbing, particularly as Bob seems to have found some sort of hoarse and gravelly aspect to his voice….

It was very exciting to find a 1920’s King Oliver tune which is flapper music type incorporating the blues: the Dippermouth Blues. It’s pretty cute, and while not quite what I’d deem your typical bluesy number, it still contains that yearning sound that one possess. Plus it’s lyric-less. Really, in that era you don’t need to go too further past Billie Holiday Gloomy Sunday or I’ll Be Seeing You.It was timely that I ventured out on Friday to yet another NZFF film: this one being a pretty special get together of guitar legends Jimmy Page, The Edge and emerging legend Jack White for the documentary It Might Get Loud.

The three give us their childhood backgrounds, provide original footage from various projects (Page's post session guitarist era involvement with The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin; The Edge's U2; White's The White Stripes, The Upholsterers, The Raconteurs), general jamming and discussion on early influences, their guitars and of course, their raisons d'etre.

There were some classic moments in the film, Page is a real character; an earnest child that soon realised his talents took him to commercialism; being milked for his skills, showcasing other people's work and not making waves himself. This all, of course, before creating some of rock's best music. On the other side of the coin, The Edge remains earnest. Ireland's bloody history is a constant troubling tempest in his thoughts, and the technical side to his music writing was a great insight. It was, dare I say this, extremely refreshing to see U2's music and history narrated, touched upon, by someone other than Bono. It..relieved I guess, the glorification of their music which I think happens quite often. It made me remember that U2 started out, and continue to be, advocates for anti-war, that they're patriots, and, at the risk of sounding trite, they really have injected hope into the lives of many around the world.

Thirdly, we got to see a little bit more of what makes Jack White tick. I said to my friend afterward that after seeing It Might Get Loud, that I hope Jack White enjoys longjevity with his career. Seeing him in his home environment cranking improvised blues tunes, playing the piano, the guitar, the drums, handmaking objects, this guy is awesome. He has his own distinct style, and has the potential to revitalise the blues in the future. And he made a fantastic statement regarding the blues:

"if you're digging round for the beginning of rock and roll, you're on the free train to the blues"

So: the exquisite pain of the blues and the adrenaline of rock and roll. Hand in glove as it turns out.

Til next time!


*'La douleur exquise' is the title of an episode in Sex and the City, Season 2.

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