Just yesterday a friend of mine and I were talking about Robert Johnson and wondering what his music would sound like if it had been recorded on the equipment available today. I think it would sound like Robert Belfour. Or maybe it would sound horrible and Robert Johnson would fade from the collective blues memory and Robert Belfour would rise up and take his place.
Belfour’s first recording on Fat Possum is classic stripped-down Hill Country-style blues. Unlike most other Fat Possum artists, Belfour no longer lives in Northern Mississippi, but rather in the urban jungle of Memphis. But, helping to qualify him for Fat Possum-ness, Belfour was born in the Hill Country (not Texas, mind you) and grew up throwing stones and such with fellow labelmate Junior Kimbrough (Belfour includes two of Kimbrough’s tunes on this release). Unlike many other Fat Possum artists, though, Belfour lacks the “I’m gonna put my foot in your ass” mentality. There are no songs including the clapping of a woman’s breasts, there are no violent threats, there is no falling-down drunkenness. I would not say that this departure of sorts is necessarily refreshing since it is precisely these on-the-edge artists that make the Fat Possum label so exciting. Belfour steps aside from the world of Hill Country fights and instead produces stunning blues laments fueled by his sophisticated and clear guitar chops. While many of the Fat Possum artists remain partially self-defined precisely by their lack of virtuosity, Belfour has complete control over his music. His voice is deep and rich in both tenor and expression and his polished guitar work follows his voicing like water running downhill.
This is back porch blues. Belfour has no other musicians on this album (except for some light drums on two tracks). His accomplished playing mixed with his rich and melodic voice fill any listening space with emotion, whether that space is this my desk or my porch. Belfour music treats most conventional blues themes: love lost, love in the here-and-now, broken hearts, loneliness (“Holding My Pillow”), and of course, love lost again. Belfour also touches on some not-so-blues themes such as aging in “Done Got Old”: “Done got old / Can’t do the things that I used to do.” Belfour generally plays an acoustic guitar on most of the tracks on What’s Wrong With You, but when he picks up an electric guitar, you can almost here the snake blues of Junior Kimbrough seeping through the speakers. Maybe it was something in that Hill Country water. They should bottle it. His electric numbers noodle and sway quietly up and down his guitar as the loneliness drives straight into your soul.
I have a genuinely simple assessment of Belfour’s recent release: stunning. If you like acoustic blues, actually if you like any blues, buy this CD. Period.