R.L. Burnside | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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R.L. Burnside

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R.L. BURNSIDE

Despite the obligatory protests from purists, there's nothing inherently wrong with the Fat Possum label's attempts to graft hip-hop technology onto the deep blues of Mississippi hill country guitarist R.L. Burnside--at a juke joint or a house party, the groove is all that matters once things get hot. Burnside's latest, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, is pretty crowded for a blues record, featuring the contributions of turntablists DJ Pete B and DJ Swamp as well as assorted other programmers and techies, but the hip-hop elements enhance rather than overwhelm his brooding, ominous intensity. Burnside tends to sing like he's talking to himself, and the electronics--usually low in the mix, like a bogeyman knocking around in the basement--make his graphic lyrics feel otherworldly and nightmarish. His take on the Skip James classic "Hard Time Killing Floor" is dominated by electric guitars, bass, live drums, and electric piano, so that the only conspicuous anachronism--Pete B's scratching--seems to open a raw wound in the song's deep, roomy sound. On "Too Many Ups," Burnside's version of a venerable African-American comedy routine, a primal guitar riff is bound to an implacable, mechanical-sounding rhythm track, and his vocals are punctuated with samples of a fife-and-drum band and stuttering loops of his own voice; it's fascinating to hear old-fashioned wordplay subjected to hip-hop's language-as-sound treatment. He even transforms the upbeat Aretha Franklin hit "Chain of Fools" into a dark, ragged moan: when she sang "I'm gonna take all I can take," she sounded ready to transcend her bondage, but he just sounds trapped. Burnside's whiskey-and-gunpowder slide guitar is unaccountably absent from the record, though, and so is his regular touring band, which will accompany him here--a lean trio featuring his adopted son Kenny Brown on second guitar and grandson Cedric Burnside on drums. Onstage he doesn't bother with the extras--no DJ, no DAT backup--and his vocals, almost intimate on the album, are a hair-raising roar. Whether or not the hip-hop fusion was Burnside's idea, as Fat Possum claims, the 74-year-old still sounds most at home in the kind of music he's been playing for generations: a stripped-down, obsessive, single-chord boogie, nailed together by the crude crack-and-splash of a snare and cymbal. Friday, November 24, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.

DAVID WHITEIS

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