Fusion Blues

There’s a legend (which I’m making up right now) in which young bluesman Chris Thomas King visited the crossroads – and figured out a way to take all four directions at once. Perhaps no one has stood up so defiantly for the right to meddle with and adapt a revered American musical tradition than this widely-traveled, Grammy-winning artist, and he’s taken lumps for it. This comes from his own bio:

“Controversy and debate grew among purists because of the uncharted directions he was taking the blues. He was the first bluesman to embrace the digital music revolution and the first to introduce hip-hop along with sampling and deejay-distorted electronica into (the) genre. . . . Branded as a rebel, King was banned from blues festivals across the United States. He fled to Denmark to cool his heels in the more liberal environment that flourished in Europe.”

Well, welcome home Chris Thomas King! Actually he moved back stateside years ago, but the point is that Music City Roots, where King plays this Wednesday, was made in part as a refuge for artists with transgressive tendencies like King’s. Why just last week we had a guy playing the “Caribbean” steel drums in a modern jazz fusion trio. Before that it was Sam Bush who gave the very name to NEW-grass music. The blues, like bluegrass, if not updated, would become a relic for history books, and Chris updates relentlessly and prolifically.

He knows the core though. His dad, Rockin’ Tabby Thomas is a fine guitarist and vocalist who may have made his name most famously as a club owner. Can you imagine growing up with a place like Tabby’s Blues Box as your dad’s place of work? Some guys have all the advantages. Anyway, Chris was already an established blues innovator when he was invited to be part of a curious movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou? Oh, so you’ve heard of it? Thomas played Tommy Johnson, the real-life blues artist who is said to have been the origin of the whole met-the-devil-at-the-crossroads myth. In the Coen brothers film, Tommy hooks up with the escaped prisoners who become the Soggy Bottom Boys and in so doing, enacts a microcosmic (and comic) version of perhaps the most important story in American music, when white met black and found common cause. Chris Thomas King’s solemn version of “Hard Time Killing Floor” by a campfire, recorded as an actual take in the filming and not an overdubbed mock performance, was as heart-stopping as Ralph Stanley’s “O Death” at the Klan rally. Holy smoke, I’ve got to pull that movie out and watch it again!

So King will bring the blues fusion, but in certain ways, so will our other guests, all invited to be part of a night that features artists heading to the wonderful Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival in that border-straddling town where Tennessee meets Virginia. The first performance I found by MCR first-timers Uncle Lucius was a blues. Going deeper, I found their Austin-based sound mingles the rough beauty of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and The Band with song craft that calls to mind their Texas contemporaries Band of Heathens. It’s good old rock and roll, well sung and played, and it sounds like a bunch of fun.

Also at the barn will be two cool returning collectives. Sam Lewis sings Mississippi-Alabama blue-eyed-soul with grace and grease. And his band features the great Kenny Vaughan, a veteran of the show, recently at Guitar Night. Lewis (with Kenny) made a superb debut album last year that’s steeped in Southern humid goodness – and it has cotton on the cover. We’ll also enjoy a visit from Folk Soul Revival, a rollicking quintet from the Asheville NC/Appalachia area. They’re kind of blues fusionists themselves come to think of it. And they transgress with a smile.

So you know the drill. The doors open at 6 on Wednesday night and the show starts at 7. Purists are welcome, but no money back guarantees.

Craig H

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