Review: The Black Keys’ LP of Blues Covers, ‘Delta Kream’ – Goin’ Down South To The Mississippi Hill Country

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Despite the heavy influence of the blues on just about every band I was into through college – the Stones, Zeppelin, Clapton, Aerosmith, etc – it wasn’t until after college when I was sent into corporate exile in the lonely state of Arkansas that I actually saw my first blues band in an actual blues club. Don’t be confused, it wasn’t in Arkansas that I saw my first blues band. Every week I spent in Arkansas I was usually figuring out how to get out of Arkansas by the weekend. Early in my southern desolation a group of friends of mine were convening in Chicago for various, nefarious reasons. It was my sainted mother who said to me, in regards to actually flying to Chicago to join them which I was hesitating on, “Buy the ticket son, enjoy your life.” On the appointed weekend I drove from Ft. Smith to Tulsa, the closest functioning airport, and flew to Chicago. It was like getting a three day furlough.

By the time the wheels touched down in Chicago and I made it to my friend’s waiting car, someone had thrust a beer into my hand. I knew this was indeed going to be a great weekend. Before I knew it, I was down on Halsted standing in front of the legendary Kingston Mines. I seem to recall not being able to get in and so we went across the street to the B.L.U.E.S. bar… It was there that I saw Magic Slim and the Teardrops, my first blues band. After that performance, my musical universe made a lot more sense. I spent a lot of time after returning to KC hanging in blues clubs like the Grand Emporium, alas now defunct. One of my first dates with the Rock Chick I took her to B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, an old school roadhouse. I can still remember watching her swaying to the blues music on her barstool with a half-eaten rib in her hand. I was…mesmerized. 

Despite my love of the blues I had no idea when I posted my rockers playing the blues playlist a few weeks ago what a huge part of 2021 the blues were going to be. That post grew out of another post I’d done about old school cassette mix tapes not any preternatural sense the blues were going to be a big part of spring. But before I knew it Mick Fleetwood released the soundtrack to his blues jam in honor of Peter Green. And now, the Black Keys have released an entire album of blues covers. A blues album from those guys totally make sense. Like the White Stripes they’ve always had that bluesy sound to go along with the garage rock swagger. It’s often that you hear a band do a cover song, but an entire cover album isn’t as common as you think…but that’s another post. 

I got into the Black Keys on their third LP, Rubber Factory. For some reason that LP just didn’t click with me. Months later though, the Rock Chick discovered it and it went into high rotation for her. After hearing it a few times I realized I’d missed something on my initial listens. She not only picked up Attack & Release she went all the way back to their debut LP, The Big Come Up. Since then I’ve had an odd relationship with the Keys. I seem to like every other LP they put out. Rubber Factory, yes. Magic Potion, no (although in their defense I’m not sure I gave that one a thorough enough listen), Attack & Release, yes. It wasn’t until this week, in anticipation of the new blues LP, Delta Kream that I picked up Brothers. They had quite a run there with Attack & Release, Brothers, and El Camino. They’ve branched out from their early garage-rock bluesy roots but they always return to them eventually and that’s the stuff I like the best. 

Delta Kream is not the first time the Black Keys have done a strictly blues thing. They did an EP in honor legendary Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough, Chulahoma. The Keys also covered Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump” on their debut. The influence is definitely ingrained in their music. They’ve stated that Delta Kream is an album to honor Hill Country Blues and the musicians who played it – Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Missippi Fred McDowell, to name but a few. Hill Country blues generally refers to a type/style of blues played in the northern part of Mississippi near the Tennessee border. It has a “strong emphasis on the rhythm and percussion and a heavy emphasis on groove.” I just love that description from Wikipedia…I had to quote it verbatim. Hill Country blues has also been described as “hypnotic boogie.” It’s like cool bluesy trance music. With Patrick Carney on drums, he’s tailor-made for Hill Country Blues. 

The Keys convened shortly after their tour for their last LP, the superb “Let’s Rock.” The chemistry between singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney is so strong that they entered the studio and recorded this album in 2 days… approximately 10 hours. There was apparently no plan or rehearsal, they just set up and eyeball to eyeball played the blues. They’re like me and my friend Drew, it can be 10 years since we last spoke but when we see each other it’s like it was just yesterday… I think we all have friends like that. To augment their rootsy two-piece sound they rounded out their sound on this LP by bringing in Eric Deaton who was R.L. Burnside’s bassist and Junior Kimbrough’s sideman Kenny Brown on exquisite slide guitar. You can’t get more authentic blues sound than bringing those guys in. To emphasize the percussion, so important in the Hill Country blues they also added Sam Bacco on percussion. Brown was a critical add as his and Auerbach’s guitar snake around each other like Clapton and Duane Allman did on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. 

Knowing my proclivity for the blues, it’s no secret that I love this LP. I listened to it all day yesterday and last night on the headphones after the Rock Chick was asleep. This is the kind of music that just seeps into your pores. I can feel dirt on my hands when I hear this stuff. The first track on the LP which was coincidentally the first single is “Crawling King Snake” which I first heard the Doors do on L.A. Woman. It’s a track they played early on but Morrison couldn’t convince the band to include it on their debut. It was previously made famous by none other than the legendary John Lee Hooker. I love what the Keys do here with it – they cleave pretty tightly to the Junior Kimbrough version of the song – it’s swampy. “Louise” a Mississippi Fred McDowell tune is next up and I’ll just quote the Rock Chick when she first heard it last night, “That’s a great tune.” Indeed. 

“Poor Boy A Long Way From Home” is another favorite… it’s been done by several artists but I really dig this version. It’ll put a hitch in your giddy-up as a friend of mine used to say. These guys make these tunes sound fresh and new and somehow ancient at the same time. I feel like I’m getting wisdom when I listen to old blues tunes. “Stay All Night” which I seem to remember asking the Rock Chick after seeing her eat ribs and groove to the blues, is a slow burner of a tune. When you think about the blues, this is the type of music  you think of. “Going Down South,” which helped me name this post is a bit of a twist as Auerbach sings in a high falsetto. It’s a nice change of pace. “Coal Black Mattie” a Ranie Burnette track is another stand out. It just jumps up and grabs you with a thick riff, insistent drumming and stabs of slide guitar. I like to imagine I’m in a roadhouse down at the crossroads, washing down the dirt from a hard day working with a cold, affordable beer when I hear this stuff. 

There are so many great tunes here – and most of these blues tunes are ones I hadn’t heard before, which was a surprise. “Sad, Lonely Nights,” and “Walk With Me” are tracks I’d never heard covered. I used to think there were maybe twelve blues tunes and artists just passed those around. Obviously, that was wrong. There are some who will probably criticize the Keys for being too reverent and clinging too closely to the original versions of these songs, although I think in most cases they make these tunes their own. I remember Clapton’s great blues LP From The Cradle being criticized for not taking enough creative license with the songs. I feel like that’s hollow criticism. If you’ve got the chops to get up and make me feel something, I’m good with that. In the case of the Black Keys they’re exposing me to blues music and artists I would have otherwise not known and that is the greatest support you can show other artists, especially bluesmen. I know I immediately turned to Junior Kimbrough’s catalog to check that cat out. I will likely continue spelunking into Hill Country blues having heard this LP. 

I highly recommend Delta Kream. This is a swampy, bluesy treat of an album. When the Black Keys are on their rootsy game they can literally compete with any band on the planet. It’s just so fantastic to hear this kind of blues music still being recorded in 2021. I’ve always feared it’s going to be like what Elwood Blues once said, “some day the music known as the blues will only be available in the classical music section of your local library.” With albums like this one, that day looks like it’s been pushed a little further down the road. Thank God. 

Cheers! 

4 thoughts on “Review: The Black Keys’ LP of Blues Covers, ‘Delta Kream’ – Goin’ Down South To The Mississippi Hill Country

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