The New Chicago Blues

The blues aren’t in good shape these days. Besides being musically moribund–or perhaps because of that–the genre’s been almost completely discredited in the realm of rock music; since that realm is populated primarily by slumming upper-class white folk, that discredit isn’t surprising. To the extent that the blues exist there at all, they appear in two different but warped forms. The first and less interesting is as a foil for some high-powered smirking. The John Spencer Blues Explosion, for example, blow out the blues in a manic rush, in rather the same way quasi-novelty bands like the Reverend Horton Heat burn up rockabilly: they pledge allegiance to the music but trivialize it at the same time. More interesting is the blues’ weird manipulation at the hands of a select few drugged-out, hollow-eyed practitioners: Come, from Boston, and New York’s Royal Trux essay a blues of mental and physical sickness, addiction, loneliness, and marginalization.

It’s in this latter group that Wicker Park’s Red Red Meat have now taken their place. Red Red Meat plays the blues with a shiver and a sigh: exhausted, disconcerted, removed from reality–indeed, seemingly insular to the point of almost utter solitariness–they wail and jam in a confining muck of trash and anomie. Theirs are the blues of spirit and mind, not necessarily the musical or the mechanical variety: if there’s a traditional 12-bar progression on the band’s recent Sub Pop release, Jimmywine Majestic, it’s buried somewhere in the slime and the lava. But in the place of such artifice are other things: for one, a feel–of splattered love, life, and blood, and such a lack of energy that the mourning is only between the lines. For another, a sound–spurting guitar, a dirty slide, barely aroused vocals all over a boogieless but surprisingly articulate rhythm section. The record that Jimmywine Majestic sounds most reminiscent of is Exile on Main St, the Rolling Stones’ famously decrepit and obscure masterpiece of American blues. But where Exile’s decadent force came from its self-absorbed meditations on the psychic toll of too much sex, too much money, too much everything, Jimmywine Majestic’s creators are much younger and much more marginalized: theirs is the sound of the most unglamorous decadence you can imagine.

Wicker Park residents get some bad press for their alleged pretentiousness, but remember that we’re holding them to the rather strict standards of the midwest. In New York Red Red Meat would be ostentatiously throwing around odd guitar tunings, sucking up to the press, striking musical poses, and obscuring emotions in painstakingly prepared bowls of lyrical Burroughsian stew. As it is their blues are remarkably unselfconscious. They’ve absorbed the feel of the blues, reprocessing it through cough-syrup highs and a glimpse or two of the maw (notably the death in 1992 of bass player Glynis Johnson), and found that the music works quite well for their current concerns. Humorlessly, they call their record company Perishable, and find it difficult to name their desires much less achieve them: “I’m too lazy to chase you down,” sings Tim Rutuli at album’s end. Call them the boho blues, but they’re sticky and arresting all the same.

Brigid Murphy Update

Brigid Murphy is facing another round of grueling chemotherapy after a severe recurrence of the lymphatic-system cancer that put her out of commission for much of the last year. The 29-year-old performance artist, impresario of Milly’s Orchid Show, and saxophonist with Poi Dog Pondering was just weeks away from the end of her treatment; sporting a fresh head of hair, she was even well enough to go out on the road with Poi Dog. But she felt lumps in her throat in New Orleans, and subsequent tests revealed that the disease–an aggressive form called lymphoblastic lymphoma–hadn’t yet been beat. She left the tour last Friday and is currently at Northwestern Hospital. (Poi Dog leader Frank Orrall, who lives with Murphy, says the band is playing shows through this weekend and then jettisoning the rest of the tour. The band’s Tibetan Resettlement Project benefit performance at Metro May 9 will go on.) “I had a 90 percent chance,” Murphy sighs. “It wigs me out. All it took was just one or two little cells [not eliminated by the initial treatment] and it fucking comes back.” She’s facing a more potent round of chemotherapy and radiation therapy over the next few months, and a bone-marrow transplant after that. Hitsville is a friend of Murphy’s, knows that through the unpleasantness of her first round of treatment–undistinguished months of vomit, pain, and debilitation–she was good-spirited and optimistic, and keeps thinking that she doesn’t deserve to go through it again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.