Wednesday, June 16, 2004
In a 50-plus year career, he's recorded well over 20 albums, one with Philly Soul legends Gamble and Huff. Last year he starred in one of the films in the Martin Scorcese-produced series "The Blues." He's won a stack of Living Blues awards and grabbed a Grammy nomination for an album made when he was nearly 60. Even soul-gospel greats The Staple Singers have done one of his songs. In the past two months he's played in eight states and Canada, and the next couple months will see him hitting a chunk of Europe.
His new album "Folk Funk" will hopefully change all that. Backed by Grammy-nominated hotshot guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart (who, despite having four albums and 40 years under his belt, is still referred to as "that young kid"), Steve Johnson on bass, and Charlie Jenkins on drums, Rush has honed his folk blues sound down to the core. Rush's signature harmonica is given extra room to breathe in the spare production done by Rush himself and his Deep Rush label partner Greg Preston, an ex-Malaco executive.
By the 1980s, too much of the live and recorded blues music began to feel stifled and worn-out by repetition and imitation. People were so obsessed with the form of the music, the traditional "my baby left me" of it, that they couldn't treat it as a living, breathing, bloody, boozy art form, the very source of its power. Without the flexibility of humor and mistakes and whimsy, the blues got as clumsy as Beethoven in the hands of a pre-teen at a Sunday piano recital. For all the accolades they get for "reviving" the blues, dreary purists like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck only succeeded in jamming the art form into a freezer box, to be thawed out come never.
Rush has always refused those conventions. His songs overlap and run together the same way the notes jump out of his harmonica. You'll be certain that one song is gonna be "the Delta one," but then a funk riff gets snuck in on the side, and you don't know what it is. Then the tune you're sure is going to be "the jazzy Chicago one" is shattered by a harp solo into a whole other style. In Rush's hands, the blues aren't a defined art form, but an improvisational and almost palpable emotion that changes as it wants. You can almost hear him grinning behind it all, too, which is unheard of for the purists.
"Saints Gotta Move" opens with a harmonica riff on "When the Saints Go Marching In," but Rush distorts the song into a traditional blues stomp that's exactly what you would want to hear at 1 in the morning at 930, your back soaked with sweat and jammed up against the bar. It's an effortless highlight on an album filled with them, from the dusty roots vibe of "Uncle Esau"—a song Bobby learned from his father—to "Chicken Heads – Refried," the reprise of Rush's first big hit, back in 1971 for the Galaxy label. "Chicken Heads" has a slow, loopy groove with a slightly distorted vocal floating behind it, like an AM station that's barely fuzzing in and out, and it's a fitting tribute to the longevity of the blues as popular art form. It's rare that a 30-year-old song might still sound fresh today—but in Bobby Rush's hands, the blues are a living, breathing, fighting creature that's still viable in the 21st century.
Bobby Rush's CD is available at Be-Bop and other record stores. Visit his Web site at www.bobbyrush.net
Reviewed by David Chilton, June 17, 2004
Bobby Rush is famous - just not with white folks (yet). It's a shame, too. I can think of some others who managed break over into the "white" market (when it was divided into white and black) back in the 70's and I think Bobby may just have not been in the right place at the right time; either that or his live show was a little too risque for those venues (which were pretty staid back then). It's a shame, though. Bobby is it. Not just an accomplished musician, he's one of the most complete performers I've ever seen - no one plays to his audience any better than Bobby. And, from what I've seen, he's an all round nice person as well. A few years back I saw a tiny notice on WalMart's bulletin board that said Bobby Rush would be in Water Valley, MS on Good Friday. (I saw this on the day before). I couldn't believe my eyes. Water Valley???? So, Friday night, I headed to Water Valley to the auditorium, and got there early to make sure I could get a ticket. As it turned out, that tiny notice on WalMart's bullentin board in Oxford was indicative of the advertising for the show. There were only about 100 people who showed up, and many of the ones I talked to were like me - they saw a tiny notice in an out of the way place. No one knew he was there. I found out that he had come to raise money for the Park activities and T-ball leagues for a friend of his in Water Valley. I thought surely, with that small crowd (and some of them people who worked there, not paying folks) he wouldn't perform, but, by golly, he put on a performance to rival the one I'd seen him do at King Biscuit for a crowd of thousands! What a trooper. He brought an older lady (all dressed in her Sunday best) onto the stage with him and did "Sue" to her as she sat in front of him on a stool. He stood around after and signed autographs and even jumped back up on the stage and did an impromtu song by himself. Last year at the Blues Symposium, he performed and was on one of the panels - he was one was one of the best entertainments I've seen in a long time. The man is clever and witty, he ad libs like crazy, he has a rare humbleness about himself for a performer. Love me my Bobby Rush!