John Lennon said that the blues is a chair. A lesser-known but even more fraudulent blues apologist named Althius “Pop” Hinks called the blues “a slippy eel, elusive in its properties,” which may just have been an apology for his own pitch-poor slide guitar playing. “The blues is a low-down shaking chill,” said Robert Johnson – or Willie Dixon, depending on the account. (So much blues lore seems to be about the mishearing of things that Robert Johnson said, or didn’t.) “But that’s the genius of the blues,” said Pop Hinks, explaining the inconsistencies in his own story as well as the elusive properties of blues mythology in general, “Its correctness keeps getting audited by life.”
The blues is a place where “common” and “mystical” mean the same thing: easy to learn, never to be mastered – it’s simplicated, as my friend Mark Aldrich would say. Blues theology effaces as it aggrandizes: “Simple music is the hardest music to play, and blues is simple music,” said Albert “Albert Collins” Collins. “The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad,” offered Dickran “Leon Redbone” Gobalian, a roots appropriator of a provenance almost as suspect as Pop Hinks, who countered that “The blues is a personal thing I don’t take personal,” possibly echoing Roosevelt “Honeydripper” Sykes, who said, “The blues player, he ain’t worried and bothered, but he’s got something for the worried people.”
Mysticism and metaphor attend the blues as they do no other genre. When blues prodigies appear on a scene, as they have on ours recently in the persons of three excellent guitarists and bandleaders – Connor Kennedy, Jonny Klenk and “Mojo” Myles Mancuso – they are received (by the true believers) as embodiments of an ancient spirit, reincarnated lamas, carriers of a truth of which they themselves are not yet fully cognizant.
I see it another way: Smart young people like old stuff. They like fedoras, black and white, and the sound of their voices through transistor radios. They like archaic, weird syntax. They like the presumably-more-authentic artifacts and identities that they find in an occult past: pre-digital, pre-globalization. Unreliable histories and the accretions of myth only heighten this authenticity. The nut of the “real” hides in the past, accessible not via formal history (least of all school) but only via Zen misdirection, serendipity, outlaw apprenticeships and vinyl.
But this is old news. How many centuries of young Europeans idolized the culture (and lifestyle) of the ancient Greeks because it was closer to the source, touched with the original, awakening light of art and philosophy? To generations of retro-Hellenists, the art of the Greeks seemed like what Lee “Big Bill Broonzy” Bradley called the blues: “A natural fact,” a direct, unmediated expression of first wonder and first suffering. Gosh, we want that. We want it bad. Nothing else will do.
This yearning for the “old authentic” in music can drive us to some pretty preposterous posturing and pretension (and alliteration), but that’s a contradiction that I can live with. Look, being someone is hard. It’s never really clear how to act or dress or speak naturally. I am not going to call “phony” on every retro affectation that I come across in music; I’d have time for little else. And roleplay, whether cosmetic or deep enough to qualify as delusional, is a part of the musician’s very real search for identity and purpose.
In his mid-20s, Jonny Klenk of the Jonny Monster Blues Band is age-disqualified from prodigy status, and is a little more in touch with the actual hardship inherent in his life choice. He’s a ways down the road of the blues lifer, and probably has a good sense of what Pop Hinks meant when he said, “It’s the blues what has to be kept hungry; not you.” But people are coming out in numbers to hear the guy play, along with his bandmates, drummer Roger LaRochelle and bassist Pete Newman (who also comprise the rhythm section of New Paltz-based space-rockers the Dreambats.) Jonny is a searing, nasty-but-mature blues guitarist reminiscent but not especially derivative of Stevie Ray, and with a touch of Jimi. The band hits a loose, grungy punk/blues groove that is audacious and exciting. And Jonny rips it up.
The tragically underexposed 17-year-old Connor Kennedy (I am just kidding – relax!) counts blues as only one of his many musical competencies. He is in fact an elegant, tasteful and toneful blues player who really listens when he plays (many hotshot young guns do not). But it is the depth and authority of his singing voice that is so preternatural and beyond his years.
At 16 now, “Mojo” Myles Mancuso is the youngest of the three, and the only one thus far formally to declare a blues name as part of his package. His command of the instrument and the idiom are impressive: really “uptown” with a touch more funk in the cocktail. Surprisingly, he has a great reputation for showmanship, which is not typically the strength of the prodigy. With prodigies, the freakish discrepancy between age and skill-level usually is the show. The gracious manners of showmanship tend to come with time and humility.
During the first heyday of electronica and techno in the ‘90s, I had a job alongside a couple of makers of 808 and 909 beats. When they would play me something spacey and repetitive, I might say, “Nice ambient!” And they might say, “Dude, that’s not ambient; that’s Down-step Miami Dry Chill.”
Oh. Sorry. How the subgenres proliferate, based on distinctions so subtle that they are apparent only to the aficionado, if they are real at all. So it is with the blues: a language with countless dialects, variations of feel and regional brands that all kind of sound like “the blues” to most of us.
I wish that I were more qualified to differentiate among these three based on the particular blues traditions that they honor and reference. I am sure that all of them speak Kansas City, Chicago, Texas and whatever other styles and cities they need to. They’ve got that kinesthetic thing in abundance: feel, time, tone and taste. This marks them as natural musicians, not as blues musicians. They could play whatever style they want. They’re all a minor ii chord away from jazz right now. But they have elected the limitations of the convention-governed blues, where staking out a distinct personal voice is a tough, wheel-rutted road to travel and the differences between quality players often come down to nuances of tone, phrase, gesture and reference that are lost on the casual listener.
Prodigies face a unique set of dangers, impediments in their development: always center-stage and always having your age on people’s lips. But to my ears, all three of these players are cultivating yeoman musical virtues that will serve them well when their age/skill ratio is no longer chief among their achievements.
For example, I recently watched a video of Connor Kennedy sitting in with another blues band at Club Helsinki in Hudson. I must come clean about this now: A ten-minute pass at “Statesboro Blues” with consecutive, multi-chorus solos by an organist and two guitarists is not my idea of a good time, no matter how gifted the players. Classic blues just isn’t my thing, though it is most certainly a big thing and a part of us all.
But Connor really showed me something in this clip. After the organist and the other guitarist ripped their solos, Connor seized the moment and…took everything down to zero, beginning his solo with extreme patience and a glacial rate of development, building to a simmering, lyrical statement that said as much about the kid’s makeup as his skill. Lead guitar is a lot like jumping rope: It can be harder to do slowly than at max speed. Kennedy declined the challenge to outblow the other guys. More importantly, it was a move that made this particular blues musical and, for a moment at least, novel and surprising: uncommon qualities in places where “authenticity” is spoken.
“Metaphors were as rare for me as things you can’t find anywhere,” reflected Pop Hinks upon one of the many deficiencies that have kept his genius obscure, and I too have spent my whole store of blue truth for now. Enjoy the thriving Hudson Valley blues scene. It’s just a chair, after all. Relax. Have a seat. Happy April.