Long before crossing over into the world of Jon Spencer hipsters via 1996’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey collaboration, R.L. Burnside was a bluesman plain and simple, not a Blues Explosion man. Except for such experiments as Ass Pocket, and the “dance album” Come On In, simple Delta and juke-joint blues are where Burnside comfortably — and prolifically (a dozen or so albums of his material have been released within the past five years) — remains.
Well … Well … Well … captures Burnside at his laid-back best; bringing together old, previously neglected recordings of private sessions and early concerts. The tracks aren’t arranged chronologically, but intuitively: beginning with “Charleston Interview” in which Burnside recounts his work as a fisherman before the blues became his primary vocation. Throughout the CD, there continue these sorts of stories, jokes and “raps.”
All of the material on Well … Well … Well … was captured during Burnside’s rise to greater fame, while he was beginning to tour and play larger blues and folk festivals, which may explain why five of the tracks were recorded in places one wouldn’t necessarily expect — Holland and Greece. Along on tour was friend and harmonica-man Jon Morris, responsible for the original boom box-style tapes.
Eighteen tracks were culled from Morris’ material, and they show that Burnside had cultivated his own signature style early on. We get simple songs propelled by driving rhythm and moaning vocals captured on recordings that are far from slick.
This is good. So is that the entire album escapes any sort of beer-commercial, blues-style percussion. In fact, there’s only a drummer (Burnside’s ex-son-in-law) on two songs here, “Goin’ Down South,” and “Mellow Peaches.” This is an album for those who believe that the best blues percussion might very well be the old-fashioned sound of a foot stomping a floorboard.
A handful of the songs were written by the best-known blues performers: Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Little Walter. Of course, in the tradition of the blues, borrowed is far from boring. A good many other tracks are credited to Burnside alone in the liner notes, but have obvious links to traditional songs. “Goin’ Down South,” is a standout among these; an early recording of a song that’s such a favorite, it appears on four of his subsequent albums. Other cuts found on Well … Well … Well … are likewise destined for appearances (in slightly more polished form) on later releases such as Too Bad Jim and Mr. Wizard.
The treat of this album is that those very same songs are here, unpolished, recorded as practice tapes and “just for the hell of it.” The collection is all the better for its lack of technical sophistication. With that welcome absence comes the simplicity that helps you hear how Burnside was in the beginning, and how true he’s remained to those original Mississippi hill-country blues.
Mariah Cherem is a MT editorial intern. Send comments to email@example.com.