Last weekend’s Coachella Festival marked a key moment in the evolution of blues rock. The break up of The White Stripes, and Jack White’s descent into super group purgatory, appeared to leave the world of visceral blues in the lurch. The flag bearer for soulful guitar driven rock had withdrawn from the throes of the mainstream, but thankfully, in the genre’s moment of need, The Black Keys leapt from the shadows and asserted their dominance.
Headlining the Friday night at America’s biggest festival proved that The Black Keys were legitimate superstars, and simultaneously signalled that blues driven rock would not become an irrelevant and unnoticed subgenre of the distant past.
The Keys aren’t the only ones flying the flag for the sound that inspired all the greats from Robert Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan to The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. A new breed of blues star is eager to follow in those illustrious footsteps. Guitar Planet has singled out four such artists; all at different stages of their career, with their own stories to tell, intent on making a unique mark on the ever unwinding tapestry of the blues.
There’s something inherently uncomfortable about labelling The Black Keys “new”. Not only is their sound drenched in 60 years of visceral blues rock and sticky soul, but the hard rocking duo have been plugging away for eleven years across seven albums.
Many of the band’s greatest works can be found on their early releases Thickfreakedness and Rubber Factory. These initial records combine a fuzzed out bluesy swagger with the ramshackle understatement of garage rock, and emphasize the Keys’ flair for uncluttered to the point blues. After a spending a good chunk of time in the studio delving into psychedelia with super producer Danger Mouse, the band shocked the world with the success of Brothers. The 2010 album saw the duo streamline their thicker psychedelic sound, harnessing their newfound flair for retro-soul to create a punchy, more pop friendly, formula.
“Tighten Up” swooned with silky desperation as Dan Auerbach showcased what was fast becoming modern rock’s most deeply seductive soul rock. Doors style keys were added to the equation, as were sauntering riffs, and The Keys, for all intents and purposes, were off to the races. Brothers quickly went platinum but before the world could pause for breath, The Keys were back with El Camino (2011). Danger Mouse was back behind the production desk and the duo immediately capitalised on the soulful advances of Brothers, writing a chart friendly record that consciously juxtaposed Dan’s suave vocal with his own jabbing jaunty guitar lines. El Camino went platinum instantly. The band were booked to headline Coachella and Lollapalooza in the US, while playing a series of huge dates in the UK, and as if by magic, the 2010s had their very own blues icons.
Britney Howard has almost singlehandedly put Athens, Alabama on the map. The young starlet and lead singer in the hotly tipped Alabama Shakes possesses a voice so rich in character that it adds a torrential depth of emotion to even those most uninspired verses and pedestrian arrangements. Sitting somewhere between Jack White and Etta James or Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin, Britney has the remarkable ability to both bulldoze her listeners with sheer power and to lure them in with her underappreciated Southern charm and vulnerability (the latter often precedes the former).
The Alabama Shakes debut album flew into the UK Charts at no.3 this week, having topped the midweeks charts. Boys And Girls isn’t a five star classic, but it is an incredibly promising start, brimming full of ground shaking vocals, slick riffing, and earnest intensity. It’s the kind of record that wins people over almost instantly. Britney gets you onside with an endearing moment of internal dialogue “Come On Britney”, or an arresting snap (“Listen To Me!”) before dazzling with a gut-wrenching chorus. They’re a little bit indie, they’re a little bit rock’n’soul, but they’re defiantly blues rawk.
Seasick Steve’s ragged aesthetic, hobo chic and homemade guitars made him an instant hit when he hit the festival circuit in 2004. He felt like a diamond in the rough; a true bluesman, in an age of made for TV rock stars. Quite simply, he felt genuine. 2012’s breakthrough star, Willis Earl Beal, might just have him beat however. Few artists have a more authentic or enticing backstory.
The details are sketchy but the star who grew up in Chicago left the military in the mid-2000s and, after living with his grandmother, decided to make his way on the streets of Albuquerque of all places. Willis would perform a capella under bridges and at railway stations, he had no Internet, no Facebook or Soundcloud accounts. Instead he made cheap CDRs and left them on random restaurant tables around town with his now legendary flyer attached. Crudely but endearingly drawn, it simply read “Write Me And I Will Make You A Drawing, Call Me And I Will Sing To You” and featured the artist’s full home address.
Before being snapped up by XL, in one of the most unexpected signings of recent years, it turned out that Willis, desperate for a break, auditioned for The X Factor US. Thankfully Simon Cowell overlooked the bluesman; otherwise the world would have been denied Willis’ daringly stark debut album Acousmatic Sorcery.
Lo-fi in the extreme, the album retains the authentic feel of a wizened troubadour raised on the streets, while possessing the daring spirit of an avante-blues innovator fresh from art-school. A tantalizing mish-mash of contradictions, Willis Earl Beal is a perplexing talent capable of penning a track as delicately beautiful as “Evening Kiss” just as easily as he can unleash the gutturally brutal “Take Me Away”.
You know the pressure is on when you’re the son of “The Godfather Of Austin Blues” and Rolling Stone is comparing you to Jimi Hendrix. Gary Clark Jr., who is about to make his major label debut in 2012, simply has to deliver, and all the signs suggest that he will. Superstars as diverse as Eric Clapton and Questlove (The Roots) have given Clark their approval, and the son of WC Clark showed on 2011’s scintillating The Bright Lights EP that he’s got what it takes to be a star in more than just name.
“Bright Lights” and “Don’t Owe You A Thang” are hardly revolutionary but they offer a cool, comfortable in their own skin, swagger that allowed Clark to avoid the kind of laboured reverence that undermines so many blues revivalists. The acoustic cuts “Things Are Changin’” and “When My Train Pulls In” showcase Clark’s true potential. Gorgeously chilled, the tracks marry the earnestness of classic blues with the kind of engagingly modern R’n’B tone that has made stars of Michael Kiwanuka and Ed Sheeran.
Clark has been gigging and releasing his own albums since he was a teenager, garnering a wealth of experience that should serve him well in what is shaping up to be the most important year of his deceptively long career. With countless awards already on his mantel it’s hard to bet against him, but Gary Clark Jr. still has prove he’s got more to offer than 40-year-old ideas and an easy delivery.
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