Wandering Stranger

Fat Possum

lues fans (us included) often lament the seemingly dried up pool of authentic, non-professional bluesmen. Times have changed, we acknowledge, and while the circumstances (poverty, oppression, violence) that produced the blues remain widespread, musicians’ expression of those circumstances has changed with the musical climate. Hip-hop is the outlet of choice for today’s poor and disenfranchised, blues an afterthought, restricted to isolated backwater burghs where time has inexplicably stood still. For contemporary blues fans, the question becomes, where will new blues come from?

If The Black Keys and Entrance frontman Guy Blakeslee are any indication, the answer is white, suburban kids who grew up revering legends like Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. We’re reminded of the adage “Kids don’t see color; it’s adults who make them aware of race.” So perhaps white kids singing about their baby leaving them on the last train out of town and one-eyed dice-throwers isn’t patently inauthentic. Right?

At the risk of committing an ad hominum fallacy, we’re not so sure. If the gravity of the blues does, in fact, find its source in its autobiography (a performer’s lyrics so often derived from his lived experiences) we can’t help but question the admirable but fundamentally secondhand commemoration of the genre by contemporary, suburban players. In any case, we readily concede that new blues is better than no blues, regardless of the source.

That philosophical treatise behind us, we give you Entrance.

In Wandering Stranger, twenty-one year old Blakeslee, who’s opened for acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Cat Power, delivers a splendid debut. Though comprised of three traditional songs to which Blakeslee grafts new lyrics, one cover, and five originals, Wandering Stranger is remarkably consistent. These are tracks that do not rush for anyone, with a couple logging in at over eleven minutes each. The template here is stark, Blakeslee’s effeminate, almost yodeling croon filling what sounds like a hollow, concrete room as one echo bleeds into the next. The instrumentation is equally bare, offering only Blakeslee’s subdued, meter-irreverent guitar along with piano, fiddle and soft percussion accompaniments. This album is fit company for those who find themselves drinking alone on a Saturday night.

Beyond his blues influences, Blakeslee reveals a proclivity for the Velvet Underground’s single-note strumming and spooky atmospherics on tracks like “Lonesome Road” and “Please Be Careful in New Orleans”. But where other acts (most notably The Strokes) have borrowed elements of VU only to sterilize them by subjecting them to generic pop song structure, Blakeslee seems a traditionalist through-and-through, adopting VU’s sound part-and-parcel.

On “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor”, Blakeslee’s guitar work crackles and pings with the authority of an originator. “Darling” is a classic lament about poverty, drug addiction, and doomed love in which Blakeslee’s lyrics alternate between idle observations (“The girls in the train in New York city / Frown so much they could never be pretty”) and poignant gossip (“I hear you been searchin’ for your mainline / But the search is over / Any vein is fine”). The vocal nuances on “Honey in the Rock” impress, establishing Blakeslee’s emotiveness and penchant for shirking conventional time signatures in favor of the spontaneous ebb and flow of a particular performance.

The term “performance” aptly describes Wandering Stranger. In the tradition of old bluesmen, who saw studio sessions as little more than performances where they “sung into a tin box”, Blakeslee, too, seems bent not on retroactive polish or self-conscious preening (at one point he acknowledges that his hair is caught in the microphone), but on delivering a solid live performance that just so happens to have been captured on tape.

Wandering Stranger is an excellent album, one that’s made us think twice about our circumscribed definition of the blues. While instrumentally, Blakeslee offers homage to the legends of the genre, his determination to set his tunes to original, contemporary lyrics makes him more than a mere partisan. The man is putting his own bleak portrait in an old, dingy frame, to splendid effect.

Reviewed by: R. S. Ross

Reviewed on: 2004-10-12

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