Back in the early 90's I read about an album called Deep Blues. It was the soundtrack to a movie by the same name. I had always been a blues fan but I had figured that the old blues I loved didn't exist. Once I read about this album I had to have it. The first track on the album is a song by R.L. Burnside called "Jumper on the Line." It completely blew me away. The person behind that spooky guitar with a voice as deep and rich as the soil he tilled when younger was alive and currently making music. I had to find out who he was and get more music by him. If you watch the video you will see a kid wearing a shirt with yellow sleeves. That is R.L.'s grandson, Cedric Burnside. I didn't see the actual film until a few years ago. It was hard to find.
Two years later the label Fat Possum released an album by R.L. Burnside called "Too Bad Jim. It was produced by a writer called Robert Palmer. Palmer also narrated the movie "Deep Blues" and wrote a book with the same name. If you have any kind of interest in blues music this book is a seminal work and you will get a lot out of it if you crack it open. It really lays out how and why the blues evolved. Now that I think of it I don't know why I don't own the book "Deep Blues." I should rectify that soon. "Too Bad Jim" is an amazing album. It was recorded live with Kenny Brown on second guitar Cedric's father, Calvin Johnson, on drums.
For several years Cedric Burnside, R.L. Burnside's grandson, played drums for the old bluesman as he toured the country. Cedric is joy to watch play drums. I have called him the blues Keith Moon. He's all over the place with he plays. He hits the drums hard and fools around but he still manages to keep a tight rhythm. A good example of Cedric playing with R.L. can be viewed here. The second guitar player here is not Kenny Brown.
I can't ever describe what it was like to see R.L. Burnside play. I'll just say that it's the best live music I've ever seen. There's something about people like R.L. They have the ability to reach deep inside themselves and tap into the energy of the universe. A transformation took place when he performed. Not all the energy he harnessed was good either. That was part of his magic.
Chris first got to know Cedric Burnside when R.L. Burnside played at the Double Door in Charlotte, NC. Chris is more gregarious than I am and he hung out with Cedric in the ready room upstairs at the club. A few months later Chris, Wendell and I drove up to Cleveland to see R.L. Burnside play at the Euclid Tavern and this time we hung out in the back of club with Cedric and R.L.'s adopted son, Kenny Brown. I found Cedric to be one of the nicest people in the world. He was only 20 when we met him but he is friendly, smart and funny and he loves being on the road and meeting new people. While we were getting to know each other Robert Cage was playing inside. I remember distinctly talking to Cedric about a song Robert Cage played that had a real unique rhythm and as we discussed he started playing the song. We said simultaneously, "That's the one!"
Later, in early 1999, we saw R.L. in Asheville, NC and Cedric saw us walk in and greeted us and said, "Have you seen Grandad yet?" I said no and he said, "C'mon back" and we got to hang out in the club's kitchen with R.L. Burnside. I remember R.L. seated in a folding chair wearing a ball cap and a jean jacket. At some point a young kid came in with his girl friend and offered R.L. a beer. R.L., smiling and not saying a word, slowly pulled open his jacket and pointed at a fifth of whiskey stashed away in the inside pocket. He was good. That is also the night that Wendell, Chris and I got to hang out with the band after the show Wendell and I sat on each side or R.L. while he told us dirty jokes. One of my most prized memories.
Around 2000 R.L. had heart surgery and pretty much stopped touring. We didn't see Kenny and Cedric on the road again until 2003 when they played at the Orange Peel in Asheville. We approached Cedric and he recognized us and after his set (they were opening for another band) we got to hang out in his bus with him for a while and chitchat.
That brings me to this last Thursday. Cedric Burnside and, his new partner, Lightnin' Malcolm played at the Double Door here in Charlotte. We arrived a little after 9:30 and they were already playing. They played until after 12:30 with a break in the middle. Their project is know as the Juke Joint Duo and they play music in a similar droning blues style as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. I bought their new album called "2 Man Wrecking Crew" and it's really good. I really love the first song called "R.L. Burnside." It's a tribute to his grandfather by Cedric.
It was an excellent show. Lightnin' Malcolm is a R.L. Burnside acolyte and channeled the old man a few times. He plays and sings R.L.'s songs well and, what impressed me the most, he and Cedric write and sing their own songs. I like what they are doing. They are taking the music they grew up with and making it their own. I'd love to see this project get some legs so they can stick with and expand it. If they come anywhere near you, go see them. You will be amazed. Be sure to approach Lightnin' and Cedric and say hello. You'll be impressed by how friendly and fun they are. They live for what they do.
During their break we hung out with Cedric in the van and he played a couple of songs on an acoustic guitar. They were unfinished songs and he was just trying them out. That was a very cool thing. I hope they come around again soon because spending an evening listening to a member of the Burnside clan play music is one of the more special things you can do in this world.
A few pictures from the other night.
In the van with Cedric
Chris and Wendell jamming