No self respecting guitarist would ever admit they can’t play the blues, the chords are pretty simple, all you have to do is play a 1, 4, 5 progression, when you get to the end, put a little ‘turnaround’ piece in there and hey, you’re playing the blues. You’re not, you’re not playing the blues. You never will. You’re not Rembrandt, you’ve got the same paint, it’s the same canvas, the brush is in your hand… yet you still can’t paint a simple flower that makes you stop and stare in wonder.
Blues music was never popular, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s music born of Mid-Western barns and cheap wooden bars in desperate need of repair. All we have left are fading black and white images and crackling records. It was music made by the poor, mostly lives of solitary wandering to find a gig, or if they were lucky, they got themselves a residency for bed, beer, food and some tips. Some did find a little fame, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson were among the few.
Of course, we have Seasick Steve, making blues mainstream, but let’s not kid ourselves that he isn’t a circus act, he’s popular, funny and engaging, there’s a lot to like about the guy and his music, but he plays in the big top. All this talk about a blues revival misses the point, it never went away, it’s always there in the background like a grandfather watching over all of popular music.
There’s a lot of polished, shiny stuff out there, all its minor faults ironed out by people using technology that would shame a space program. At 3:28 on track 2 Joe, there’s a snare beat that’s 3 milliseconds out, so Joe fixes it, after all, they wouldn’t want to offend anyone. Sometimes it seems there is more debate about mixing a track than there is in politics these days.
There are some of us left who like to hear strings buzzing, slightly mistimed finger strokes – to us it’s like a favourite jacket, it certainly isn’t designed by some high flyer, it wasn’t expensive, a lot of people think it looks aged, wrinkled, uncool, but we love it and wearing it makes us feel good.
Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes is a blues player, at 72 years of age he’s got a lot of history behind him. What is it about musicians that they never retire? Whilst we yearn for the day we finally walk away from the day job and seek a little peace and escape from everything we worked at for 50 years, these guys never give up, there’s always songs to write, another album they want to record, it must be a glorious yet frustrating life to live. Holmes is no exception, the Blue Front cafe, which his sharecropper mother and father opened in 1948, is run now by him. He opens the club every day and most weekends he’ll be there playing his music, often accompanied by friends.
From the opening guitar run of ‘Hard Times’, all the feel, the imperfection, the century or so of history and culture is brought out into the bright sunshine. Holmes’ latest album ‘Cypress Grove’ doesn’t change anything, it’s not a revolution, but who needs one of those when we can sit in our chair and listen to front porch blues?
The title track is just over two minutes long, but packs in echoes of struggle and the desire for release. Played with such feel and ease, there’s a lifetime distilled down to 128 seconds right here. Holmes then ups the tempo for ‘Catfish Blues’ and ‘Going Away Baby’. Shuffling beat backing electric guitar breaks that overflow with distorted punctuation.
The album was produced by The Black Keys Dan Auerbach in Nashville, and his love of the genre and admiration for the work of Holmes is something that is evident throughout. Auerbach has done great work with this.
Little Red Rooster, that blues standard, receives the full band treatment and it is as laid back as it gets. It’s indulgent, of course it is, and so it should be, played in waves of instruments that wash and ebb over hypnotic beat. ‘Gonna Get Old Someday’ returns to punchy guitar with all the beating blues and sorrowful vocals, it’s full of energy but sung with contradictory world weariness. It’s a great example to anyone of Holmes’ work.
‘Train Train’ predictably uses a shuffle pattern to echo the engine on tracks of steel, and there is nothing wrong with that, the link between trains and the blues is almost as old as the genre itself. The train is running down the track, will it bring his baby back? Who knows… all I know is that I enjoyed the ride through this album, and if you get the chance, buy a ticket for yourself.
© Jon Hutchinson 2019