Matthew Johnson, the 28-year-old who runs Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records, has said that the only good blues music today is on his record label–and with Delta talent like the late Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, CeDell Davis, and Paul “Wine” Jones on his roster, the hyperbole can almost be forgiven. In the liner notes to Pee-wee Get My Gun, the debut album from 75-year-old T-Model Ford, Johnson presents the singer-guitarist as an answer to the “picturesque standard” of a bluesman, “an old black man devoid of anger and rage happily strumming an acoustic guitar on the back porch of his shack.” But by celebrating Ford’s violent past–including a murder conviction and more weekend jail stays than Ford could count–he just builds up a different unfortunate stereotype. If you can get past Johnson’s polemics, however, there’s no arguing with the raw power of T-Model Ford’s music. Over the untrained flailing of his regular drummer, Spam, Ford unleashes a furious barrage of amped-up boogie that makes even John Lee Hooker at his most brutal sound like–well, like that guy on the back porch. Like Hooker, he often loses the beat or carries his ideas well past the end of a measure, and his vocals are as ragged and urgent as his guitar playing. On the stomping “Nobody Gets Me Down,” perhaps the most devastating tune on the album, Ford blurts out, “I’ve been shot and I’ve been cut / I’ve been shot and nobody gets me down.” On the other hand, “I’m Insane” sounds as calculated as gangsta rap, as Ford mumbles his way through boasts (“I went to jail for kicking a man’s ass”) and threats (“I’m gonna kick your ass / I’m gonna put my shoes in your ass”). Still, if you want to see one of the last bluesmen on earth who isn’t grooming himself for a beer commercial, here’s your man. R.L. Burnside (see Spot Check) headlines. Saturday, 10 PM, Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee; 773-489-3160. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Matthew Johnson.