Since I started listening to blues, that’s been a hard question for me to answer. It’s important, because it speaks to what blues is, really. Can Clapton play the blues, really? Sure he knows the chords better than most any player, ever, and his technical facility was never in doubt, even before some spray-painting urchin deified him in the famous English graffito.
But is it Blues with a capital B? What about Zeppelin playing covers of 1930s tunes, or Mick Jagger barking out sweet papa Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain?” I mean, come on, really.
If you’d asked me that question 15 years ago, I’d spit on your shoes and ask how dare you desecrate the hallowed names of Magic Sam and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Muddy and Broonzy and Jimmy Reed by putting people like Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger in the same sentence. I’d invoke the spirit of Big Mama Thornton and have her chase you in your dreamsÂ at night, wielding her crowbar.
That was then, and this is now. It’s not that I’ve done a 180-degree turn, but an acknowledgment that:
- So many legends have passed away since that time, and it seems that more and more white blues lovers are keeping the art form alive;
- I’ve gone through deep explorations of obscure 1960s garage rock, much of it including loving, and, well, good covers of Muddy and Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed; and
- The latest blues revivalâ€”Deep Blues, as performed by the likes of the Black Keys and Black Diamond Heaviesâ€”sounds more primitive and raw, more like the original blues than polished stuff from the Yardbirds, etc. of the classic rock era ever did.
And I’ve also softened a little. Back then, to me ZZ Top and Aerosmith played rock, not blues. There was a Chinese wall in between the two. Now, I think the spirit of those two bandsâ€”as well as that group Mick Jagger frontsâ€”is more blues-oriented than rock.
Other groups might not be blues groups, per se, but in my opinion could play a good blues song (not just a rock song with a few blues chords). So yes, we can call some white rockers’ music blues. But please, let’s be a little judicious with the term. Anyone who calls what Eric Johnson does “blues” is itchin’ for a fight. Also, I’m still not sold on most of Clapton’s catalog outside of his Mayall and Dominos work. But that’s a discussion for another day.
In the meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a couple Procol Harum (pictured below) blues-like cuts, “Wish Me Well” and “Whisky Train,” which to me indicate Gary Brooker & Co.’s understanding of the milieu. Just don’t call ’em a blues band.