Get the Black Keys Blues

Get the Black Keys Blues

black keys blues
L: R.L. Burnside  (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images). C: Patrick Carney of The Black Keys  (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images). R: Junior Kimbrough  (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images).

Ohio's Black Keys are a rare modern-day example of something a lot more common in the '60s and early '70s. They are a blues outfit that became a popular rock group. The Rolling Stones were the first to tread that path and opened countless young listeners with their early covers of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the like. The Yardbirds came next, and while they probably never quite shook their blues band image, they managed to have quite a few hits and, of course, gave the world Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, all of whom did. The Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac followed - most people these days have no concept of the Mac's roots in blues - while back in the States, where of course the blues was born, the Doors, who began life as a blues covers band, and the likes of Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, were able to transcend their roots in a way that neither the Butterfield Blues Band nor Canned Heat were quite able too. 

For a decade before they hit the top of the charts worldwide with "Lonely Boy", "Gold on The Ceiling" and their smash El Camino album, the Black Keys cut their teeth playing a heavy form of garage blues that was informed by the North Mississippi Hill country blues of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough as much as it was by the primal mid-western garage rock of the Stooges. By the time of their second album, Thickfreakness, they were signed to North Mississippi's Fat Possum Records, the label that brought the music of Burnside and Kimbrough to the fore and helped shape a new blues consciousness that shared much with punk. 

Indeed Burnside, who had been active since the '60s around Mississippi and Memphis, found fame via an album recorded in 1996 with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. That album, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which followed his first Fat Possum album, Too Bad Jim, took Burnside's raw blues to new extremes. Still, they were extremes that his label mate and fellow North Mississippi bluesman, Junior Kimbrough, didn't need the involvement of any wise-ass New York punks to reach. Kimbrough's snaky, hypnotic, and loose blues was so raw that the Black Keys covered him on their first two albums, and when Iggy reformed the Stooges in the new century, the first tracks they released were on Fat Possum's 2005 Junior Kimbrough tribute album Sunday Nights the Songs Of Junior Kimbrough.

R.L. Burnside (with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) | “Goin' Down South” 

Junior Kimbrough | “All Night Long” 

Fat Possum's Kimbrough covers record, of course, included the Black Keys. And when the Black Keys were leaving the label to sign to Nonesuch, they said goodbye with an entire EP of Kimbrough covers named Chulahoma after the area in which Kimbrough's legendary backwoods juke joint Junior's Place had been located.

Black Keys | “Work Me” 

Two albums into their Nonesuch contract, the Black Keys hit paydirt with El Camino. Their sound now incorporated stronger rock influences - indeed, both "Lonely Boy" and "Gold on the Ceiling" had a glammy stomp about them that suggested '70s T-Rex. A couple of albums later and after a considerable break in which frontman Dan Auerbach established himself as a studio and record company owner and producer with his Easy Eye Sound imprint, the Keys return to their blues roots this month, with Delta Kream, which features new versions of multiple songs by both Burnside and Kimbrough and more.

Joining the two-piece Black Keys - Auerbach and long-time original partner Patrick Carney - for the new record is Kenny Brown. Brown is a guitarist steeped in the North Mississippi sound who grew up in the region and learned his skills at the feet of a local bluesman named Joe Callicott, who first recorded in the 1920s. Kenny Brown first played with Burnside in 1971 and spent decades as Burnside's sideman and "adopted son."

While Kenny Brown is best known as Burnside's long-time lieutenant, he has released several solo records in the past. The title track of his first album, Goin' Back To Mississippi, is this writer's pick for best rockin' blues number of the last 30 years or so - check it out here. 

Kenny Brown | “Goin' Back To Mississippi” 

Kenny Brown | “France Chance” 

The Black Keys recorded Delta Kream as a quartet - Dan and Pat, sitting in a circle with Kenny and another white alumnus of the North Mississippi region, Eric Deaton, who cut his teeth playing Junior's Place as a teenager. The album was cut live in the studio and captures the loose grooves of this particular type of blues in a way that hasn't been caught since we lost both Kimbrough and Burnside (in 1998 and 2005, respectively.) The album features multiple tunes from Junior and RL and some tunes that influenced them, like John Lee Hookers' iconic "Crawlin' Kingsnake", the album's first single. The video, as seen here, features Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton alongside Dan and Pat. 

Black Keys | “Crawling Kingsnake” 

The Black Keys Delta Kream is set for release on May 14 and available to pre-order now. Check it out below. 


delta kream


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