I saw R.L. Burnside a couple of times before he died. He was old then and played seated. He looked like a giant, unmoving bullfrog. During both gigs, he remained preternaturally still, unblinking even, just barely moving his lips to sing and his fingers to play guitar. It was fantastic, of course. Hypnotic, joyful, terrifying, raucous.
His grandson, Cedric
, who spent years touring with him, and his acolyte Steve "Lightnin'" Malcolm
, haven't quite reached the heights of that blues wizardry, but damn if they're not on their way. Last night at White Water, they played one of the best show I've seen all year.
The genius of the Hill Country blues, particularly post-Junior Kimbrough, lies in its complete devotion to rhythm. Last night, that meant that Malcolm, on guitar and vocals, and Burnside, on drums and vocals, spent most of their time preserving a groove that compelled everyone in the bar to stand up and stomp (and the midlife crisis dudes in sandals and socks, who'd been drinking at the bar since 5 p.m., to flail widely and give each other, and Burnside and Malcolm, fist pounds).
Malcolm, a doughy white boy with a John Daly starter mullet, creased jeans and a shirt with his face on it, worked a mean slide and managed bass lines and rhythm parts simultaneously and subtly. When he soloed or homed in on a particularly sweet guitar harmony, he had trouble suppressing a big, toothy smile. Burnside, sinewy in a wife-beater, used his kit like he was an ADD kid letting out aggression. But if busyness is the downfall of many a good drummer, he played with a polyrhythmic command that made that moot and had folks big-eyed all night long.
The duo were in town to celebrate the release of their new album, "2 Man Wrecking Crew." It's a fine album that fits within the Hill Country idiom, but never sounds like a tribute to a bygone sound. There's a strong sense of Burnside and Malcolm, both in their amped up takes on traditional music and original lyrics. Both men sing, often in harmony, and each has a natural, deep blues voice.
Burnside gets credit for my favorite lyric, on "That's My Girl," "We argue in the morning before we go to work / We argue in the evening we she get off / We argue at night before we go to bed / She still give me a little bit before I doze off / That's my girl." Buy it.
But even more, don't miss 'em next time. As good as the album is, they're exponentially better live. You won't find a better blues show.