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Kent Burnside Blues Band at Dazzle

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Kent Burnside Blues Band
Dazzle
Denver, CO
May 3, 2024

Geography has always been important to music. Especially before advances in transportation and communication, communities developed specific local styles of music, much like accents and dialects. But music, like language, is just another form of communication. And, like language and accents, differences have appeared in relatively close proximity.

Such is the case with Hill Country blues. Mississippi is widely considered a key incubator of the blues. The popular focus of the birth of the blues is the Mississippi Delta area in the western part of the state. The area is basically the floodplain of the mighty Mississippi River. The land is flat, relatively treeless, ideal for large-scale agriculture. Indeed, this is plantation country. But just to the east of the Delta is the Mississippi Hill Country. Here, the level ground of the Delta gives way to rolling hills, ubiquitous trees, smaller farm plots and a different flavor of the blues.

Clarksdale, Mississippi is often denominated as the epicenter of the Delta blues. Vast farmland surrounds Clarksdale, the Mississippi River is to the west, oxbow lakes lurk throughout the region and other remnants of the Mississippi River's meanderings in times past still mark the land.

Holly Springs, Mississippi is only 75 miles northeast of Clarksdale, but the land is much different. Trees are the first thing you see, vast forests covering the rolling hills. Outside of silviculture, agriculture here is practiced on a much smaller scale. It is from these two different environments that Delta blues and Hill Country blues sprang.

The Hill Country blues sound traces its roots back to fife-and-drum bands of the early 20th century. That music, in turn, is directly rooted in Africa. One of the foremost keepers of the fife-and-drum flame was North Mississippi musician Otha Turner who died at age 94 in 2003. He had recruited friends, family, neighbors and anybody else interested in his old-time music to learn it and pass it on. Another pioneer of the Hill Country sound was Mississippi Fred McDowell, although his influences included plenty of Delta blues as well.

But most significant of all the Hill Country bluesmen was R.L. Burnside (1926—2005). Burnside was one of those "lost" bluesmen, known to and influential to many local blues players, but unknown in the wider world for most of his life. Early attempts to bring Burnside into the popular consciousness were only marginally successful, due in part to his raw, uncompromising style. Eventually, and through further recordings, the public finally caught on and he was able to tour beyond the Hill Country and make some dough from his talents. So, Burnside, along with one of his contemporaries, Junior Kimbrough, eventually embedded their unique Hill Country sound into the blues psyche.

Hill Country blues was forged in the juke joints and house parties throughout northeastern Mississippi. Most often, it is stripped-down: guitar, bass, drums, impassioned vocals. Much of it uses just a single chord and a boom-chick-boom-chick rhythm for a trance-inducing, hypnotic effect. Imagine the packed, sweaty juke joint, about 2 am when the local moonshine has had a chance to kick in.

The North Mississippi Allstars found success with their local Hill Country blues style in the early 21st century with their album Shake Hands With Shorty (Artemis Records, 2001). That album included songs by McDowell, Burnside and Kimbrough.

In addition to performing and writing dozens of songs, Burnside fathered 10 children and he is grandfather to many more. Many of those children and grandchildren are carrying on his tradition of Hill Country Blues. No less than nine Burnsides are currently playing the blues.

One of those is Kent Burnside, oldest grandson of RL, who grew up around Holly Springs, Mississippi. As a veteran of many of RL's house parties, he saw RL play frequently. He may not have known at the time that he was getting a one-of-a-kind blues education. Friday night at Dazzle, Kent Burnside started his first set by declaring that he planned to play some Hill Country blues and some Chicago blues. And the spirit of RL Burnside and the Mississippi Hill Country permeated the proceedings.

Kent's set list incorporated several blues standards, original compositions and plenty of RL Burnside tunes such as "Miss Maybelle," "Bad Luck City" and "Things Goin' On." He closed with "Shake 'Em on Down," a Hill Country classic composed by Mississippi Fred McDowell and covered by RL and the North Mississippi Allstars as well as many others. The blues standards he played were probably more well-known to most audiences. He paid tribute to Howlin' Wolf with "I Asked for Water." Despite Hill Country blues' reputation for hard partying, Kent Burnside showed a melodic, mellow side with standards such as "As the Years Go Passing By" and "I Play the Blues for You."

Friday night's rhythm section comprised the Brothers Best, Jacob on drums and Colin on bass. Together with Kent on guitar and vocals, the trio cranked out various shades of blues with precision. Burnside's guitar playing wove through the various styles, sometimes constructing a heavy blues-rock lick, other times recreating that 2 am North Mississippi juke joint boogie. His vocals cemented his place as the leader of the band and a true blues singer.

And so, RL Burnside's legacy lives on. Through Kent, his relatives and other bands like the North Mississippi Allstars, Hill Country blues continues to work its way into the common blues vernacular. RL Burnside's style continues to spread throughout the blues world and many of his tunes continue to achieve the status of blues standards.

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