WE POPULAR MUSIC freaks know we're supposed to have a sense of filial respect for rock 'n' roll's absentee father, the blues. But how many of us truly love him? What caused my best friend in eighth grade, I wonder, to grow out his vintage 1983 mohawk and pick up the slide guitar, deciding that this music was more exciting and primal than punk or reggae? I'll likely ponder these questions on Thursday when acclaimed Louisville guitarist Michael "Duke" Robillard plays Famous Dave's in Uptown, the only local blues joint that doubles as a family restaurant in a shopping mall. But the more salient question will be whether the venue's patrons feel the sort of chills that once visited Robillard's own spine some 40 years ago, listening to the raw sounds of Southern R&B on his radio in Burrillville, Rhode Island.
Without making predictions, let's first address the jaded blues haters out there by dispensing with the term guitar legend, which is certain to have cynics snoozin'. Sure, my guitarist friend admires Robillard, who is certainly an adept fret acrobat and one with an unusually acute sense of melody. But the guy's no showboat: He makes his supremely eloquent licks part of a richer whole. Since he founded Boston's Roomful of Blues in 1967, the worst thing said about him was that his eclecticism is a form of bet hedging. True, Roomful dropped Chicago-style blues for horn-fed R&B and swing jazz when the winds turned. And since the guitarist went solo in 1990, later filling Jimmie Vaughan's bus seat in the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a spell, he has remained determined to explore an array of popular styles, even lending his atmospheric licks to Bob Dylan's 1997 masterpiece Time out of Mind.
But Robillard has worked so much heart and history into his playing that Joe Turner, as legend would have it, once brought his music to T-Bone Walker's widow and said, "You see, T-Bone's not dead." Mind you, this was being said about a white kid so Northeastern he says "ideers" instead of "ideas." But Robillard's new album, New Blues for Modern Man, manages to back the conceit of its title by evoking the past in a convincingly new setting. When he was six years old, the 50-year-old growls amiably on the opening "Jumpin' Rockin' Rhythm," the music of Memphis and Louisiana "grabbed a hold of me, girlie, and they still haven't let me go." And if it seems odd for a guitar master to invoke classic soul, there's something both immediate and majestic about the production that has everything to do with Stax and Fats Domino, even if the album touches genres well outside the purview of Sixties radio jocks.
Most blues seems produced for radio play it'll never get. But here, the polish is all in the instrumental grace with which Robillard's band transforms Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues" into a nearly dublike echo-monster, fortifying its Old West whorehouse strut with a cacophony of saxophones, mandolins, and a Turkish string instrument called a cumbus. Robillard himself crafted the sound in his Lakewest Studios, and tells me over the phone that New Blues was recorded in only five days, with no guitar-solo overdubs. "The songs were so new that we hadn't even played them, so I was laying down a reference track," he explains. "But the way the band reacted to me and followed me made me think it would be false to go back and recreate it." Suffice it to say that Robillard's is a roar big enough to bring the genre's children back home.
Duke Robillard will perform at 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 17 at Famous Dave's, Calhoun Square, 3001 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; (612) 822-9900.
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