R. L. Burnside
@ The 400 Bar, December 28, 1996

R.L. Burnside
Photo © 1997 by Chuck Winans - All rights reserved
R.L. (Robert Lee) Burnside made his first ever appearance in the Twin Cities at the remodeled 400 Bar. He played to a packed house of mostly young listeners, many of whom didn't know who he was or what type of music he played. They were there for the alternative/rock music that is normally performed. This is not a new experience for Burnside though. He has been touring with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for the past two years bringing his blues to a new, younger audience -- he enjoys it -- and so does his new audience, as was evidenced this December night at the 400 Bar. He also has a new CD out backed by Jon Spencer called A Ass Pocket O'Whiskey.

The audience was treated to the raw, elemental sounds of country blues played with an intensity reminiscent of Burnside's former neighbor Mississippi Fred McDowell. Powerful, hypnotic, driving slide guitar is Burnside's trademark and he was in fine form this night. He was accompanied by long time associate (booking agent, friend and chauffeur) Kenny Brown on second slide guitar and grandson Cedric Burnside on drums. The second guitar, rather than a bass, adds an important and unique touch to the music. Kenny played slide and rhythm...sometimes in unison with R.L. and other times supporting Burnside's licks. The powerful drumming of Cedric provided the driving rhythm behind R.L.'s guitar.

Burnside's blues guitar has a slashing, droning, trance inducing rhythm that he plays with reckless abandon. Many of his songs are a "churning, jamming one chord exercise in stamina and mass hypnosis" (from Robert Palmer's liner notes to Too Bad Jim).

This music was born in the isolated wooded hill country of northern Mississippi and has remained almost unchanged over the past 40 or more years. Burnside was influenced by his neighbor Fred McDowell, Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters (who R.L. saw play when Muddy was in Mississippi and also during the time Burnside lived in Chicago in the 50's). The music has maintained that raw, country/juke joint edge to it rather than becoming more citified as other blues that has made the transition from rural to city life. Burnside, along with his friend and neighbor Junior Kimbrough, are continuing a country blues tradition that reminds its listeners of the early days of blues played by Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House.

"Well, well, well." That's what Burnside said between almost every song to the delight of the audience. It got to be where some in the audience were joining him in that little amusing ritual. It seems to be something picked up from Muddy Waters. Burnside is a totally delightful performer...very warm, gracious and open. He was definitely there to have a good time. Here are a few of his amusing one-liners: "My family couldn't afford kids, so a neighbor had me." Or, "This glass of whiskey must have a leak -- it's got a hole in it. One big one on top!" Well, maybe you had to have been there to appreciate the humor .

R.L. just celebrated his 70th birthday on November 23rd., and doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Burnside's recent Fat Possum label albums are Bad Luck City and Too Bad Jim, 1994. You can also hear him on the Deep Blues Soundtrack album from a few years ago that served to introduce his music to a much wider audience. This was foot tapping, electric country blues at its raw best!

Mailbox E-mail Ray Stiles at: mnblues@aol.com

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Copyright © 1997 by Ray M. Stiles
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