R.L. Burnside: I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down

NZ Listener, December 2, 2000

I WISH I WAS IN HEAVEN SITTING DOWN, R.L. Burnside (Fat Possum/Shock)                            

I once saw a photograph of the great bluesman Muddy Waters dressed in sandals and a kaftan and clutching a psychedelic-styled guitar. In the face of such an uncharacteristic sartorial blunder, the expression of pained disbelief that clouded his normally Buddah-like features was hard to miss. The picture was part of the promotional campaign to sell an album called Electric Mud, a record-company initiative to market Muddy to the current hippie crowd by swamping his sound in wah-wah pedals, swirling organs and other late ‘60s paraphernalia. Why a Muddy Waters record should require innovative new sounds was unanswered. After all, this man had already invented the modern rock band; surely that was innovation enough? Needless to say, the album sucked, and I’ve been wary ever since of attempts to dress the blues in anything other than the clothes they come in.

R.L. Burnside is nowhere near the innovator Muddy was. A 73-year-old native of the Mississippi hill country, his style is based closely on the modal blues of his neighbour and mentor, the late Fred McDowell. In the past ten years or so he has been recognised as the last of the line, championed as a heritage treasure and set on a professional path. He’s also shown an unusual willingness to try out his deeply traditional music in new settings.

A tour with punk-blues avant-gardeists the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion led to the recording of a full album with the band, An Ass Pocket Of Whiskey. The recording sounds like what it is: a single afternoon session, fuelled by top-shelf alcohol, with most of the songs made up on the spot. But unlike the Muddy album, the guy with his picture on the front sounded as though he was having as much fun as the supporting cast. More recently Burnside handed tracks over to producer Tom Rothrock (Elliot Smith, Beck) to add tape loops, samples and other technology, resulting in the album Come On In. If Burnside sometimes sounded like just another of Rothrock’s samples, it at least made a pleasantly bluesy hip-hop disc.

But Burnside’s latest, Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down, is an unexpected delight. While broadly in the same vein as Come On In, it rethinks the balance of blues and electronica. The focus here is on Burnside’s voice, to which age has lent the grainy, other-worldly tones of gospel singer Pop Staples. A variety of producers fashioned the sympathetic backings, surrounding the singing with a mixture of rootsy harmonica and slide guitar, futuristic turntables and tape loops. The whole thing conjures up an impressionistic picture of the land and life that Burnside comes from. On “Got Messed Up” the languid scratching of DJ Swamp (who toured here three years ago with Beck) is as evocative of the delta landscape as the shimmering guitar (played by another Beck alumnus, Smokey Hormel). “Hard Time Killing Floor” is musical realism: Burnside’s spoken reminiscences of the murders that almost wiped out his family, set against a cinematic soundscape of floating minor chords. On “Miss Maybelle” the whole band kicks like a mule, the ricky-tick drums bouncing off the percussive tape loops.

Don’t be fooled that Burnside had a huge creative hand in all of this. He simply did his thing and let the remixers do theirs. Unlike Muddy Waters, Burnside before science is solid but not particularly interesting, so there’s little at stake in such an experiment. But until I heard the results I would never have believed that RL Burnside and a bunch of young white techno-heads could make the blues album of the year.

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