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20 Miles


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Fat Possum Records, launched nine years ago in Oxford, Mississippi, is best known for rough-edged recordings of modern Delta blues shouters like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and T-Model Ford; the label's owners, Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson, coaxed rural players off front stoops and out of juke joints, much as John Fahey and Bill Barth did in mid-60s Memphis. But in 1996, staggering under its debts, Fat Possum was bailed out by LA punk label Epitaph. The deal has brought Watson and Johnson better distribution and much-needed cash, but it also seems to have compromised their mission: can a record company claim to be preserving "the only blues that matters" while concocting a dance remix of Burnside's material called Come On In or releasing weirdo roots music by young, white, urban, media-savvy artists like the two-man band 20 Miles? Drummer Donovan Bauer and his brother, guitarist Judah, live in New York City, where Judah lays down turbocharged riffs for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and their first full-length, 20 Miles (1996), is a raunchy basement-blues freak-out that sounds like it was recorded from the attic. I'm a Lucky Guy (1998) benefits from higher fidelity and much-improved writing; the brothers shape familiar blues figures into irresistibly ragged pop songs much as Jagger and Richards could in their glory days. In the boozy "East St. Louis" the singer arrives in the title city and hits on a girl who winds up drinking him under the table; "She's the one that wore, wore me down," he complains, and then a warm, warbling harmonica does the rest of the talking. On the eerie, inarticulate "Forget Everything" Donovan tosses in an upsetting 7/8 measure, just before he jumps into a catchy shuffle beat on snare and tambourine. The menacing "Highwater" adapts Bo Diddley's signature beat; this time the singer's a small-town boy who's afraid to leave even though there's a flood rolling in. And "Johnson's Blues" lays spectral guitar lines across a heavy groove as a spurned lover haunts an unnamed town, protesting "She's got my soul!" It may not be "authentic" blues, but in these days of satellite hookups the only place for an authentic bluesman to hide is six feet under. Fat Possum artist Bob Log III (see Spot Check) opens. Friday, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.

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