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Saturday, November 29, 2008

R.I.P. Robert Lucas - an extraordinary Bluesman

I discovered Robert Lucas sometime in the mid-1990's when Audioquest records put out his recordings. With his rough whiskey voice, solid harmonica riffs, and powerful guitar playing, both electric and acoustic slide guitars, he had a very distinctive Blues style - as if he had been playing the Blues for 40 years or more. I had no idea that he was so young at the time, apparently he was in his late twenties at the time, but the album photos made him look much older. In recent years, after not hearing anything about him for a good while, I learned that he had joined the Canned Heat band as lead singer, a position he filled off and on up to very recently.
This week, as news of his passing due to drug overdose came over the internet, I was shocked to find out that he was only 46 years old. Some of his playing/singing at times was pretty dark stuff, I don't know what kinds of demons haunted him to make him turn to the drugs that led to his demise, but I hope he can rest in peace now, and that we can remember him for his contribution to the Blues.

I recommend exploring these two albums on Audioquest for starters (click on the links for a description):

Robert Lucas - Layaway Plan

*************** ^^^^^^ ********************
"Former Canned Heat frontman Robert Lucas, R.I.P.
By Reverend Keith A. Gordon, Blues

Former Canned Heat frontman Robert Lucas, a skilled slide-guitarist and harp player, died on Sunday, November 23rd, 2008 from an apparent drug overdose, according to his manager Skip Taylor. The Long Beach, California native was just 46 years old.
Lucas first became known to blues fans as a member of guitarist Bernie Pearl's late-1970s band, originally playing harmonica behind artists like Big Joe Turner, Lowell Fulson, Percy Mayfield and other West Coast blues and R&B singers. Lucas worked on his skills for years before launching his own band, Luke & the Locomotives, in 1986.
It was with the 1990 release of his self-produced cassette tape, Across The River, that Lucas began to make a name for himself as a solo artist. After receiving a complimentary newspaper review, Lucas came to the attention of the L.A.-based AudioQuest Records label, which signed the young blues prodigy to a deal.
The label quickly released an acoustic-blues collection, Usin' Man Blues, a mix of original songs and classics from Robert Johnson, Son House, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in late-1990. Lucas would go on to release seven solo albums throughout his career.
Lucas hooked up with boogie-rock kings Canned Heat in 1994 as singer, guitarist and harp player, and would first appear on the band's 1996 Blues Band album, the last featuring founding member and guitarist Henry Vestine.
Between 1994 and 2008, Lucas served two stints as the band's frontman, touring the world in front of the band and contributing songs, instrumentation and vocals to recordings like 1999's Boogie 2000 and the band's 2007 Christmas album.
Lucas recently left Canned Heat to pursue his solo career, and for a relatively young blues artist, he had endless possibilities in front of him. In a statement to the press, Taylor said of Lucas that "his unequaled fury and stage presence, together with his earth-shattering vocal delivery, gave him the ability to channel many of the blues masters through his words, songs and musical ability.
Continuing, Taylor says, "He [Lucas] has been recognized by blues fans and critics worldwide as one of the most inspired singer, player and songwriter talents of the past decade."

Robert Lucas - Built For Comfort

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Shake Hands with a Brother

A few months before going to Canada for our summer vacation, I realized that I could actually manage to attend some major concerts and see some of my idols for the fists time. One such concert was the beginning of the Allman Brothers Band summer tour of 2007, which was kicking off in Canada.
I went online to buy tickets as soon as I knew that I would be in Toronto at the right time, bought 2 tickets for the ABB show at Casino Rama which is a few hours north of Toronto, made sure I had booked a room at the Casino/Hotel, arranged the car rental, and we were all set, I was finally going to see not only the Allman Brothers, but Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks as well, since they are in the band in the last few years.

I remember the summer of 1973, the Brothers and Sisters album had just come out at the end of the summer vacation, I was in high school in the Boston area, and the local radio played music from that album all through the fall. That was my introduction to the Allman Brothers, and I have always loved their music, which is primarily based on Blues, it only took another 34 years before I could hear and see them live!

After checking in to the Casino Rama hotel, we were heading for the elevators to reach our room, and who should come out of the elevator but Gregg Allman!!!
Now, I don't like to be rude, or impose on celebrities, but before I knew what had happened, I heard myself blurt out "Hey Gregg!"
he turned around, I shook his hand and may have mumbled something like "It's a great honor to meet you", a half second of dead silence may have passed, and he turned back around and kept on walking. I later found out from the discussion group that he does this all the time, that he is just plain like that, not one to stand and talk with fans or strangers, and it's nothing personal...but I was star-struck nonetheless.

Anyway, the wife and I had a great time at the concert, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks were nothing short of amazing, and the rest of the band was certainly what I expected too - classic Allman Brothers at the height of their game.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Blues as Zen

This is an article that I wrote for a local magazine back in 1998,
I made some minor updates and corrections, and here it is:

The Blues As Zen

By Eli Marcus

What is the essence of Blues? I see the Blues as a kind of Zen. Like Zen the Blues at face value looks simple, easy. Actually the Blues is simple in its essence, however, as with Zen, a deep understanding of the Blues requires the student/disciple to travel along a path of gradual enlightenment. Brownie McGhee said: "Blues is life", i.e. the Blues is a way of life. It can also be understood that the Blues, like life, has complexity on the one hand, with levels and layers, changing and evolving in time but at the core - its essence is constant.

Willie Dixon said: "I am the Blues", expressing a level of Zen awareness about his life as a Bluesman. The origins of the Blues are quite diverse: not necessarily just musical, they are to a great extent a social/cultural expression of the enslaved and oppressed Black populations of America. Musically we find African melodies and particularly rhythms, intermixed with European musical forms, both folk and classical.

One of the inborn paradoxes of the Blues is that pain and frustration are expressed side by side with joy and spiritual elation, sometimes in the same song. This is a sort of Zen duality. The Afro Americans ("Blacks") arrived in America a few hundred years ago as slaves who were kidnapped out of Africa. With them came the famous "Talking Drums", which was both a form of percussion and an actual method of communication (like the telegraph).

White plantation owners soon understood that the drum-communication was a direct threat to their subjugating authority and a widespread ban of drums and drumming was enforced by the 1830’s. The result was apparently a strengthening of the singing rhythms as well as an emphasis on guitar (European origin) and banjo (African origin) as rhythmical instruments, a trend that has remained in the Blues to this day.

In the same token that rhythm was internalized or went "underground’, so did the Black slave's spirituality. The Black man brought with him from Africa a myriad of religious practices and beliefs which were quite foreign and strange to the Christian/European sensibilities of the White man. This included kinds of tribal witchcraft, Hoodoo and Voodoo.

The clash with Christianity, followed by a ban of Hoodoo and other ritual practices, caused the Blacks to hide these beliefs deep down inside themselves (much like the Maronites in Portugal - Jews who were forced to conceal their religious practices from public view and "officially" converted to Christianity). Again a duality arose with the Black man publicly embracing Christianity (producing Gospel music by the early 1900’s).

Many Blacks continued in secret the practices of Hoodoo and other pagan traditions, some of which are even witnessed in the Blues today. Muddy Waters was well known for the song "Hootchie Cootchie Man" (written by Willie Dixon) and also for "Got My Mojo Working", with lines such as:

"I got a black cat bone, ‘got a Mojo too,
I got a John the Conqueror root, I’m gonna mess with you...."
or -
"I’m goin’ down in Louisiana ‘gonna get me a Mojo Hand,
gonna’ have all you ladies right here under my command".

These ancient pagan religious references in the Blues may be the reason that "righteous" Blacks who were loyal to the church called the Blues "the Devil’s Music" and frowned on it or banned it outright in their homes and the community at large.
Gospel music, though really another musical form of the Blues, was strictly Christian and "White" in textual content, while the Blues have all the rest of the social and cultural content of the Black experience.

Much in the same way that Zen and Blues can be a process of enlightenment, the Black man has undergone a process of socialization and evolution in America. In the music itself we see lots of clowning and "hokum" in the Blues of the 1920’s and 30’s. The Black man in Vaudeville and early movies has no dignity, no self respect. His only expression of being a real person is his sexuality- the one thing the White man didn’t manage to repress. The White man was afraid of the Black man’s overt sexuality, leading to all the nasty stereotypes that exist about Black’s and their sexuality.

The expressions of sexuality that seemed natural and healthy in Black society, were too blatant for the uptight and even puritan White society in America of the 40’s and 50’s, and this was a major factor in keeping R & B and Blues from breaking the color barrier in the 50’s. The "softened" versions of the Black music that were hits for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other White performers were often simply "covers" of the Black originals that couldn’t break through, and were often stolen outright from the Black artists.

The late 50’s and early 60’s saw a maturation of the Black music scene, Chuck Berry became a star that appealed to Whites as well as Blacks, but just as the White audiences began discovering the wonderful Black heritage, the Black community began to turn away from the Blues as being archaic, and something they wanted to put behind them. For a while there was even a kind of shame involved in the old black culture and music, and only in the mid 1980’s did young Black artists find a renewed pride in the traditional Blues (witness Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb ‘Mo, Guy Davis, and Eric Bibb).

The great attention Blues has received in recent years in the media, including the United States government declaring 2003 as “The Year of the Blues”, is a "ship finally coming in" for artists such as John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and the recently departed Luther Allison- artists who have patiently practiced their Blues craft for 30-40 years before achieving real fame and fortune. A pop-rock artist may rise to fame in 5 years and then vanish overnight, but the Blues, like Zen, is a patient and enduring art.

Living with the Blues and learning as we go, brings us full circle, like Zen, to the starting point of simplicity, an expression of everyday life-
Brownie McGhee

© 1998-2008 Eli Marcus