Too many revivalists try to re-create the romanticized “purity” of southern blues and folk and end up instead with something overdistilled and flavorless, emptied of the existential dread that’s always been at the heart of the music. But the Tarbox Ramblers immerse themselves in that dread, in the terror of a sinner desperate to please a vengeful god. Michael Tarbox’s choked, gristly moan actually warrants the overused adjective “ageless”: even on good-time numbers like the Memphis Jug Band’s rollicking “Jug Band Music,” from the Boston quartet’s self-titled debut (released last year on Rounder), he sounds like a ghost on furlough from hell. On “Down South Blues,” an original indebted to Muddy Waters’s “Louisiana Blues,” his agonized screams make the brooding intensity of Muddy’s version seem almost serene in comparison. Daniel Kellar’s banshee fiddle ululates on top of the mix and, down below, Tarbox’s droning, swampy guitar sounds more like it comes from the antediluvian mire than any gulf coast bayou. And “No Harm Blues,” about an evil-eyed hustler posing as a bumpkin, had me looking through my old blues discographies until I discovered it was an original too. There’s an old folk trope of a tortured soul who encounters the blues in the form of a man, an apparition walking on two feet, and tries to warn it away–but few songs let the apparition answer back. If it could speak, though, its voice would sound a lot like the Tarbox Ramblers’ music. These shows are part of FitzGerald’s 20th annual American Music Festival, and will be held in a tent outside the club. Tuesday, July 3, 5:45 and 7:15 PM, FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Chapman.