R.L. Burnside was born on November 23, 1926, in Oxford, Mississippi. A little over a year younger than B.B. King, Burnside sat out the post-WWII northward migration that swept up many notable bluesmen, taking fellow Mississippians John Lee Hooker to Detroit and King himself, most famously, to Chicago. Burnside has spent much of his life as a farmer and fisherman, but he’s also amassed a reputation as a formidable practitioner of “Delta hill country blues”, the kind of music that fills back-country bars and juke joints throughout the south. Picked up by iconoclastic blues label Fat Possum, Burnside has, over the past decade, attracted wider attention among young, urban, white audiences in much the same way that urban folkies in the late ’50s helped introduce the blues to the masses. At 75, Burnside gives no quarter, playing with an intensity that belies both his age and the old-timey label “country blues”.
That reductive description fails as adequate preparation for the sheer uplift of Burnside on Burnside, recorded in January of 2001 mainly at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR (located on Burnside Street, thus the title) with four tracks from a show three days later in San Francisco. The album’s electrifying, hypnotic songs are hard to shake; Burnside’s long-time band mates — his grandson Cedric Burnside on drums and his “adopted son”, Kenny Brown, on lead guitar — perfectly accompany the rhythm guitar and gritty vocals that Burnside himself provides. The opening track, “Shake ‘Em on Down”, also begins Burnside’s second album, Too Bad Jim (1994), and it’s a freight train of a song: two guitars and drums locked in a tight groove that could unspool through the night without, seemingly, tiring either the players or the listener. “Skinny Woman” and “Miss Maybelle” continue the band’s driving sound, as do the traditional “Rollin’ & Tumblin'” (“If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck / I’d dive to the bottom, drink my way back up”) and “Long Haired Doney”.
Burnside finally takes a little break, to joke about having a drink of “tomato juice” (“’cause after tonight I’m not gonna drink anymore — unless I’m by myself or either with somebody”). These first breakneck songs are all similar, with a stomping beat, stinging slide guitar, and a churning rhythm, but that doesn’t mean they sound the same. Details vary, and the point here isn’t innovation anyway, it’s fun; the blues can be about turning heartache into an expression of joy, a point that’s proved on the first part of Burnside on Burnside. The drum-free “Walkin’ Blues” reaches back for a more traditional country blues approach, after which Burnside tells a long joke about paternity that can probably be skipped after the first hearing. The quieter tone continues on “Bad Luck and Trouble” (“I begged for a nickel / Oh Lord, to put in the telephone / I wanna talk to my baby / You know she been gone so long”) but doesn’t last long: “Jumper on the Line” returns to the freight train chug of the album’s beginning, and Burnside is off.
“Goin’ Down South” slows down slightly but turns up the pathos, achieving a feeling of menace that compares to some of John Lee Hooker’s famous work. “Alice Mae” and the lengthy closing track, “Snake Drive”, are more than satisfying as an encore. What Burnside carries with him is an air of countrified authenticity that has found an audience in irony-drenched hipsters more used to the meta-blues of Jon Spencer. Burnside’s music contains the kind of fire and passion that puts most artists decades his junior to shame, and Burnside on Burnside captures that passion with remarkable clarity.