What makes a blues performance "authentic"? It's a question loaded with an excess of assumptions (about ethnicity, about geographic origins, and about the content of an individual's character), but any answer can only be found in what transpires between an artists and his or her audience. If the blues is more than just a form, if it is a living organism capable of crafty adaptation, however, the ramifications of blues as an expression cannot slip from consideration. So, call Messer a meta-bluesman if you like, a musician who chooses to make explicit his own accumulated experiences as a listener and not just of blues in his playing; its no knock. Messer is an incredibly fluent slide guitar-slinger whose performing persona is rich in emotional idiosyncrasies. On an electric instrument, he has a hot tone that spatters like a heavy iron pan full of bubbling fatback. On his unamplified National Steel and lap instruments, Messer can produce glissing cries, smear notes and obscure the harmonic resolution of a phrase or an entire song with tremolo, and produce a ghostly shimmer as he picks out a line and allows the ring on his finger, suspended over the muted strings higher up on the fret-board, to waver, metal against metal. Messer also happens to be an Englishman who has been likened to both Ry Cooder and Van Morrison. And, flattering as these comparisons must be, they hardly do justice to the range of styles which sustain his own inventions. Add Bert Jansch, John Cippolina, Tampa Red, Peter Tosh, Chet Atkins and King Sunny Ade to the list.
KING GUITAR is an extremely well-programmed and generously filled-out compilation of tracks drawn from over a decade's worth of independent recordings Slide Dance (1990); Rhythm Oil (1993), Moonbeat (1995) and National Avenue (1997) with some new tracks recorded in 1999 tossed in for good measure. The most immediately striking of the performances here are the two featuring quixotic Texas giant Jesse "Guitar" Taylor, "Worried Life" and a nearly nine minute mining of the rich resources in the Cannonball Blues". Messer effectively defers to Taylor on these tracks, and the elder statesman's solos are all one has come to expect from this artist; his solo on "Worried Life" especially moves very far afield from 12-bar, tonic / sub-dominant / tonic / dominant structures. But it is Messer's arrangements, which juxtapose elements of reggae, Zydeco, Fela Kuti-ish horn parts and Chicago blues that are the real stars. On "Lonesome Wolf Blues", Messer takes center stage, his almost obsessively distorted (shakes, whoops, but nothing so obvious as a howl) electric lead laid over dub "riddims" and piercing Farfisa organ. "Rising Sun Blues" is arranged for just voice and electric guitar, and it is a tour de force of the best kind. Messer's chordal work is spine-tingling, and, in his single lines, he worries single notes until every last bit of nuance is wrung out of them.
Still, Messer's acoustic work is his most special. He approaches Roy Acuff's "Steel Guitar Blues" almost from the perspective of the first bottleneck guitar players like Casey Bill Weldon and Kokomo Arnold, mindful of the sound of the Hawaiian slack-key masters. The sense of melancholy this brings to this old showcase piece is both entirely traditional and utterly fresh. The two takes of the new "Drivin' Wheel Blues" are as different as they can be, one relaxed and animated by wry humor, the other employing a loping hip-hop beat that gradually picks up a threatening momentum as the lyrics obliquely pile up the details of a "low down dirty deal". "Diving Duck" has strong overtones of old English balladry, and Messer's complex pickings are in a bright major key. But "Moonbeat" is a classic blues tale of love in vain that evokes Bukka White's "sky songs" in its metaphors; Messer's guitar sounds limpid, cloudy at first, slowly becoming more and more penetrating, like the chill of the night about which he's singing.
Hard as it might be to believe from a blind listening, the basic personnel of Messer's back-up band remains stable, playing with real fire, taste and versatility. Messer's lead vocals, full of flattened vowels and plain-spoken blue notes, sound as if they belong less in the industrial pall of Manchester or Blackpool and more in the hard scrabble of the Appalachians. But the original lyrics, most of them by Terry Clarke, and important second presence on many of these performances, sport a visionary, beatnik-like imagery. "King Guitar" itself is an invoking, calling out a roster of the instrument's greatest demiurges, but is also contains lines such as "Palm wine and turpentine / You drink that stuff in four-four time". Occasionally, as on "Robert Johnson's Wake", the lyrics detract a little from a truly compelling instrumental performance; this wake ends with a stomping processions that is part New Orleans second line jubilation and part tent revival rapture. But, whatever the words, Messer accords them the utmost respect, his guitar responding to their sense, syntax and sound with real sympathy.
All in all, this music may be too "all over the map" for some tastes, damned by the chameleonlike testimony its own eclecticism. Harrowing in the manner of Otis Rush Messer is not, nor is his rhythm as infectious as, say, Lonnie Johnson's. In fact, in a few performances, Messer's playing is too measured to be as exhilarating as it tries to be ("Crow Blues", which is otherwise lovely). But his is a clear-eyed music honest about both the joys of living and the beauty to be found in certain kinds of sadness. Vibrant and imaginative, Messer's playing thrusts deep down to a stratum in the musical landscape where the roots are all tangled up. Messer cuts through any confusion without severing any vital connections, and it's a cleaving that, at its best, feels as real as any conventional catharsis.
Personnel: Michael Messer - vocals, slide, lap steel and rhythm guitar; Ed Genis - rhythm and lead guitar; Andy Crowdy - bass; Simon Price - drums; with: Sharon Vanbinsberger - harmony vocals; Jesse "Guitar" Taylor - guitar; Terry Clarke - backing vocals, rhythm guitar; Slim - accordion; Tim Hill - saxophone; Doug Cox - dobro; Ron Casat - jeyboards; Mike Lent - bass; Phil Wipper - drums; Jeffro Robertson - drums; Mary Genis - bass, harmony vocals; Louie-G - turntables, samples; Dean Roderix - percussion, harmony vocals