When The Black Keys dropped their new album, Delta Kream, on 14 May, it prompted me to explore the music of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Burnside and Kimbrough were American bluesmen from Mississippi whose music, in the hill country blues style, has influenced many later musicians—perhaps none as much as The Black Keys, the duo comprising Dan Auerbach, guitarist and singer, and drummer Patrick Carney.
Delta Kream, the Keys’ 10th studio album, is a tribute to the music of Burnside and Kimbrough. Seven of the 12 songs are by either Kimbrough or Burnside, reincarnated in the unique style that the Keys have been perfecting since 2002, when they debuted with their album The Big Come Up. Their first album was largely in the hill country blues style—just a few chords, a very prominent rhythm and percussion section, a near-hypnotic effect achieved by repetition of chord phrases and beats. The first two tracks on it were by Burnside and Kimbrough, respectively. Burnside (who died in 2005 at 78) and Kimbrough (who died in 1998 at 67) were not only collaborators but even, for a while, neighbours.
Although The Black Keys (both Auerbach and Carney are now 42 and 41, respectively) originated in Akron, in the Midwestern US state of Ohio, their brand of music was deeply inspired by the deep blues of the North Mississippi region. Their early albums had a raw, minimalist style they later began blending with psychedelic rock grooves. By 2010, with their album Brothers, they were a blues rock band that had achieved mainstream success. They were filling arenas and headlining festivals.
Last year, a deluxe remastered anniversary version of Brothers, quite a collector’s item, was released. Brothers was followed by three other great albums, El Camino, Turn Blue and Let’s Rock, all of which are part of the Keys’ journey of exploration: one where they remain faithful to their roots but also experiment with newer rock sounds. And though many bands in the blues rock genre attempted something similar, the Keys had a distinct sound. That may have been because they remained faithful to the North Mississippi blues.
Delta Kream is testimony to that faith. Recording it in two days and a total of around 10 hours, Auerbach and Carney chose to be more authentic than just choose Burnside and Kimbrough compositions for the album. They collaborated with musicians who had played and recorded with those two great bluesmen. So bassist Eric Deaton and guitarist Kenny Brown, veterans of the North Mississippi style, feature on the album.
In 2016, the Rolling Stones released Blue & Lonesome, an album of traditional blues songs, all of them covers of songs by past great bluesmen: Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Willie Dixon and others. It was the Stones’ way of paying tribute to a genre that had influenced their own music. Incidentally, it also won a Grammy Award as the Best Traditional Blues Album of the year in 2018.
Similarly, Delta Kream is The Black Keys’ homage to the genre’s prominent proponents. The opening track, Crawling Kingsnake, a Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker composition, has a funky, groovy style, setting the stage for what follows. The passion for this style of blues is evident at every point in the album. It is raw, rough and swampy. The two guitarists intersect, complement and combat each other. The rhythm section keeps the groove going, and Auerbach’s soulful vocal style, a mid-baritone that breaks occasionally into falsetto, is a perfect complement to it all.
Don’t expect revelatory lyrical insights from Delta Kream. It is a laid-back, sessions-style album of tunes that this band loves and gets its inspiration from. Several of the songs are lively. In Poor Boy A Long Way From Home, a Burnside tune, the mood turns exuberant; in Coal Black Mattie, the two guitarists intertwine their riffs for aural delight; and in Kimbrough’s Sad Days, Lonely Nights, the slide guitar and bass set up a foot-tapping, uplifting groove after a slow start.
The Black Keys are now at the vanguard of the blues rock revival currently under way. Auerbach has collaborated with dozens of musicians, producing or playing with the late Dr. John, Ray LaMontagne, Lana Del Rey, and Grace Potter, to name a few. But the Keys’ latest exploration in Delta Kream takes them back to where it all started for them—the blues of North Mississippi.
The Lounge List
Five tracks from ‘Delta Kream’ to bookend your week
1. ‘Crawling Kingsnake’
2. ‘Poor Boy Long Way From Home’
3. ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’
4. ‘Do The Romp’
5. ‘Coal Black Mattie’
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