Pop: Stuff you really shouldn't do in public

RL Burnside has boogie in his shoes, among other things. And where better to walk the blues than in front of `the young people'?
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The Independent Culture
AS ANOTHER boogie grinds to a close in Den Haag, the Netherlands, the septuagenarian blues legend RL Burnside leans back in his chair and looks askance at his empty beer glass. "This glass must'a gotta hole in it," he offers, pointedly. Another drink is quickly procured and, freshly lubricated, RL sets off on a solo version of "Walkin' Blues", whilst his band - the gaunt guitarist Kenny Brown, and RL's nephew Cedric on drums - take a short break.

When the song finishes, he tells another of his trademark stories, this one about a stuttering child bemused at the origin of his affliction, since both his parents have perfect diction. The child asks his mom, then his pop, and finally he asks the postman, who tells him, "Sh-sh-shut up, you'll g-g-get s-s-someone k-k-killed!"

In its seaside-postcard lasciviousness, it's typical of RL's cornball humour. And despite the broad Southern drawl that renders most of his stories semi-legible, the stutter is pronounced enough for the Dutch audience to well and truly catch the gag this time.

Burnside has been coming to The Netherlands for more than 15 years - that is, ever since he realised that he could make more money playing music full-time than working on the plantation back home in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Apart from a period when, like many Southern blacks, he rode the rail to Chicago in the late Forties, RL has lived all his life in northern Mississippi, picking cotton in the daytime and guitar at night.

Music has been a constant in his life: his aunt Ellie Mae married Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell was one of his first tutors.

And there was also the local hill-country tradition of fife and drum bands, a style fast disappearing now, but retained in the boogie rhythms of RL's band, where young Cedric stresses the second and fourth beats of the bar, filling in the spaces between the notes.

With no bassist, it is a tinny, trebly sound, slashed by the serrated slide-guitar lines of Burnside and Brown. As each song finishes, RL calls out, "Well, well, well" or "Yeah!" as a full stop, before launching into another of his stories.

A few years back, the garage-blues outfit The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion called RL and asked him to make a record with it. A Holly Springs hunting- club was hired for an afternoon, and the album was recorded in four hours. "It was two weeks after the CD came out before I even showed it to my wife," recalls Burnside.

"My wife said, `You mean you do that stuff in public?'! But then it outsold everything I put out, so she said, `Well, I guess you have to do what it takes to get money'."

The album in question, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, was a thrilling collusion of old and new, something that seems so obvious when listening to the relentless, jagged chanka-chanka-chank of RL's band; the hypnotic power of his modal blues grooves seems so familiar after exposure to a decade of mesmeric dance rhythms.

Even RL, though, is not too sure about the new "remix" album Come On, which pairs him with various dancefloor operatives. "It's a pretty good album," he says, "but it don't sound like the blues to me. But it helps to get more young people to come hear the band."

For the meantime, RL's quite happy to go on playing as long as the young people come around to listen, and even happier to go home to Mississippi, a place he loves despite its dubious reputation. "The reason I like it," he explains with a broad grin, "is it is the only state in the United States that has four `i's and still can't see!"