Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Down in Bentonia


For Sam Myers, 1935-2006 Down in Bentonia, Miss., deep in the Delta, a couple of fast-fingered bluesmen strummed their guitars and sang in a haunting falsetto, creating the Bentonia blues sound.

Skip James, who died nearly 40 years ago, is the most famous of the two blues musicians from Bentonia, but Jack Owens, who passed away a decade ago, is not far behind.

There’s now a third blues musician from Bentonia, and he’s lived and played for many years in near-obscurity in his hometown — until now. Jimmy (Duck) Holmes, 58, has just released his first CD called Back to Bentonia (Broke and Hungry Records), and he’s almost a reincarnation of Skip James and Jack Owens.

We’ve been listening to “Back to Bentonia” all month in amazement and wonder. “Back to Bentonia” is a revelation — a trip back to a time I didn’t think existed anymore. That’s what reviewers are saying about the CD: It’s pre-war blues with an eccentric twist: This isn’t anything like Delta blues. It’s more like early blues before it took on a driving beat that evolved into electric Chicago blues. With the Bentonia sound, the outside world was kept at a distance: They played their own kind of music down there with no outside influences to dilute its authenticity.

Holmes performs mostly his own compositions, except for “Vicksburg Blues” by Little Brother Montgomery and two tunes identified with Skip James: “I’d Rather Be the Devil (Than That Woman’s Man)” and “Hard Times,” which on the CD are credited to Jack Owens.

Sam Carr plays drums on several numbers, adding a special dimension with his deep Delta beat. He’s known as the Delta’s greatest drummer for good reason. Bud Spires, Jack Owens’ former harmonica-playing partner, performs on three songs.
The CD is better than we had a right to expect: This is a great CD, perhaps the most important country-blues record of the year.

Blues fans should rejoice that producer and record label owner Jeff Konkel of St. Louis put Holmes’ unique music on CD. Holmes is an important Delta bluesman whose voice we would not have heard but for Kunkel’s efforts. (Full disclosure: Our friend Bill Abel is co-producer.)

Several cuts on the CD were re-corded at Holmes’ juke joint, the Blue Front Café, where Holmes still performs regularly. USA Today recently ran a long Associated Press travel piece on Holmes’ café and home town. Who knows: Bentonia might be-come a tourist destination like Helena or Clarksdale, Miss.

Derek Trucks continues his string of successful blues-based rock CDs with Songlines (Columbia). A former child prodigy, Trucks is one of the most gifted guitarists around. He’s so good, you wish he’d play nonstop throughout the CD, which gets better with every listening: Astonishing music from an artist of the highest order.

A small group backing up the boss would have sufficed, but he lets his band stretch out, too, including vocalist Mike Mattison. It’s a talented group, but Trucks (the son of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks) is the star here: He’s an astonishing musician, as talented a guitarist as any seasoned musician twice his age. Still in his 20s, Derek Trucks plays as if he’d been born with a guitar around his shoulders. It’s as if this young man has experienced it all while growing up with the Allman Brothers Band, listening to jazz and blues and rock and everything in between: A genuine rocker who accepts no limitations.

Jazz and blues and R&B and rock all come to him naturally — he opens with Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery,” explodes with “I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy,” moans on “I Wish I Knew How to Be Free” and plays several of his own compositions: Nearly an hour of amazing music that might take you back to the heyday of Fillmore East and West, only better.

Bruce Springsteen, the original Boss, himself no slouch as a guitarist, has released a folk CD-DVD you might want to check out: We Shall Over-come: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia), a dual audio-DVD, is a tribute to folk singer Pete Seeger. It’s unlike anything he’s done, at least in a while. It’s loud, all right, but it’s acoustic music that you might hear at a hootenanny in the Adirondacks.

Strumming on banjo, playing on the guitar and mandolin, as well as organ, harmonica, percussion and tambou-rine, and singing as if he’s back in the civil-rights era, with 10 other musicians behind him. Springsteen belts out toe-tapping music that your grandparents may have danced to, including songs like “Old Dan Tucker,” “Jesse James,” “O Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “John Henry,” “Shenandoah,” plus the title song and more.

Grab yourself a partner and dance to the music. Then watch the DVD as Springsteen and the band perform live, as they do on the audio side, with the Boss shouting out instructions and having a heckuva good time


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