Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Measuring Up

Artists: R.L. Burnside; Midnight Oil; The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Albums: Mr. Wizard (RLB); Scream in Blue Live (MO); Orange (JSBX)
Source: Promos (Wizard & Scream); bought new (Orange)

Of the three discs here, two have a very direct connection: On Mr. Wizard, old-school bluesman R.L. Burnside is backed up by the young blooz manqués of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; the elder even served as a favorite live act for the JSBX kids. It makes perfect sense to discuss them together in a blues/rock continium mode.

So what're Aussie politco-punks Midnight Oil doing here? To put it bluntly, they share one important charachter flaw with Burnside and Spencer: they make their own records useless, pointless, irrelevant.

Basically, these three acts (and there are plenty more that could fit snugly beside them) put out records that make you want to come to their live shows. Once there, they perform with such intensity, warp the reality around them so profoundly, that the records never sound adequate again. In other words, I liked Orange enough that the JSBX made me never want to listen to Orange again.

For lots of powerful live bands, this isn't quite so deep a problem. Fugazi are probably one of the best bands I've ever seen, but the experience of seeing them live complements the records; same goes for Sonic Youth, the Lounge Lizards, Bill Frisell, Neil Young, and any number of other ace-high stage acts. But go see Midnight Oil perform, and they obliterate the studio jobs. Even though the one and only time I saw them perform was way back in high school, I still remember the palpable waves of energy that poured off the stage, making that already-enormous Oils mainman Peter Garrett seem inhumanly huge. Back in my room, cradling the gatefold LP of Diesel and Dust, the album no longer seemed to communicate the right way. I'd finally seen--really seen--what was inside this music, and now all I had was this thin slab of sound to go back to.

Anyone who's seen Spencer (especially) and Burnside (mostly) live will probably report something similar. The former creates an evening of primordial sound that goes far beyond the record's mere songs, and leaves you feeling shaken and bespoiled by the end; the latter has such a forceful personality on stage that somehow it's the between-song muttering (which pretty much consists of, "Well, well, well") that bring it home as much as the deep authenticity of his well-earned blues power.

And then the time passes, and what do you do? I saw JSBX a bunch more times, and was blown away at each and every show; not being familiar with the new album for any given tour turned out to be a meaningless detail. But now they don't tour regularly (maybe they even broke up?) and so that experience is both past and passed. The Oils kind of faded away after their mid-80s peak, and are long since broken up, so no more toe-curling rock power is due from them. And Burnside died in 2005, leaving his best moments floating around in the ether. All I've got left is these perfectly good, deeply appealing records that I see little point in listening to.

SISOSIG? It's true that these three artists killed so hard on stage that it killed the experience of their recorded material. But I'm also a bit wary of being too hasty here. Orange is on in the background as I type this, and it remains pretty flat to my ears. But I recently listened to Diesel and Dust for the first time in 15 years or so...and it sounded pretty good. No, not up to the level of the show I'd seen more than two decades back, but something was managing to catch my ear again. So as the experiences continue to recede, I suspect I may be able to hear this anew one day. Not anytime too soon in the still-fresh(ish) cases of Spencer & Burnside, but it's probably gonna take more than a few killer shows to deal a final blow to these weird blues.

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