Blues Artists Face the Music

Blues Artists Face the Music
August 1, 2009
John Lamb

Weather permitting, today is the second day of the Fargo Blues Festival. I didn’t make it to any of Friday’s shows, but I can hazard a guess as to what it was like: Some first-rate music from artists like headliner Sonny Landreth, a couple of thousand music fans dancing and a lot of pained expressions.

These anguished looks likely didn’t come from dancers who twisted their ankles, but rather the guitarists up on stage, and not because those ax men (and woman in the case of Kelley Richey) broke a string or hit the wrong note. On the contrary, it was likely when the guitarist was wailing out the sweetest solo he, or she, could think of.

More so than any other genre, blues guitarists play their music as much on their faces as on their actual instruments. Don’t believe me? Google pictures of any contemporary blues guitar god performing and tell me they don’t look like they are getting shocked, having sex or experiencing some other kind of euphoric pleasure. Fewer pictures exist of the blues forefathers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

(Eric Clapton doesn’t count, A. because he’s really a rock star, and B. he’s English, and they only show emotion when their football team loses.)

You know who’s the most flagrant blues-facer? Fargo’s hometown hero, Jonny Lang. Maybe since he’s found God, his on-stage mannerisms have become more tranquil, but in his prime “Kid” Jonny always looked so pained, you wondered if someone had strung his guitar with barbed wire.

But why are blues guitarists so susceptible to making faces? Some may argue this is because the blues is an emotional outpouring, or at least started that way. Now it’s gotten closer to rock ’n’ roll.

But what about emo bands? By definition these acts should be “emotional,” but these post-punks don’t look pained, though listening to their music can be torture. And punks, they always looked ticked off, even if, in the case of Green Day, they have all they could ever want.

Heavy metal musicians also always look ticked off, especially the drummers. (See also: Ulrich, Lars.)

Jazz is extremely emotional, but performers always have an aura of calm around them. Even Mile Davis, one of the most explosive, progressive musicians of the 20th Century didn’t make funny faces and he was forcing more air out his mouth than a PVC potato cannon. Tell me that wouldn’t hurt.

Country artists like to sing about getting too drunk and losing their dog to their ex-wife’s new husband in a card game played on a hay bale in the back of a truck on some gravel road down by the river and having to walk home in their boots and blue jeans in the rain. It sounds like a rough life, but in the videos they always look better than you (with the exception of Trace Adkins) and in real life they live better than rock stars (with the exception of Mindy McCready).

Hey, this gives me a great idea. I should round up some of the Blues Fest performers for a game of poker after tonight’s show. I get the feeling I could tell when they have a bad hand.
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