Out of the Mississippi hill country comes the first great blues discovery of this century. Robert Belfour is a 60-year-old throwback to the days before amplification, when the blues was a direct link to painful lives of plantation workers and desperate men done wrong by evil women. He knows the modern world — even throws a version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” into his set — but he has little use for contemporary upgrades. Just when it seems links to authentic rural blues have been dried up, the Fat Possum record label strikes again.
Belfour, Paul “Wine” Jones and T-Model Ford all record for Fat Possum, a small blues label based in Oxford, Miss., that has taken a punk rock approach to the music and presented it at its most raw. The label’s biggest seller, R.L. Burnside, 74, had been billed as the headliner for the House of Blues show but was hospitalized the day before and canceled.
In the 1990s, when the genre attempted to find younger and younger musicians with blazing guitar skills, Fat Possum owner Matthew Johnson turned to men who could be the great grandfathers of those new guitar-slingers — and created a solid brand for blues, much like Chess did in the 1950s, by touring his artists as part of the Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan, this being the fourth edition.
Jones and Ford, a former tractor driver born James Lewis Carter Ford somewhere around 1923, played grinding electric blues that’s knee-deep in sludge with more attention to emotion than sonic definition. They play with catchy, unbridled energy while being backed by simple bass and drums.
Jones is about the only member of Fat Possum who plays the role of a star, asking for crowd response, telling stories that actually have a beginning, middle and end, and playing music that draws on the good as well as the downtrodden.
The title track from his latest album, “Buttercup,” may well be the hottest song he has ever recorded and it stood out from his pack of boogie numbers, along with a sizzling rendition of Rosco Gordon’s “Just a Little Bit.”
When it comes to rustic, though, nobody beats his tune “Dee,” which has no lyrics beyond the title and is essentially Arthur Cruddup’s “That’s All Right.”
But it was opener Belfour, a former construction worker who didn’t play the guitar seriously until 1994, who stole the show with his acoustic guitar, performing tunes from his album “What’s Wrong With You” along with a pair of Howlin’ Wolf numbers.
He praised Wolf between numbers and it makes absolute sense: The men who influenced Wolf’s early style, Tommy Johnson and Charley Patton, are also Belfour influences; by taking the blues to days before Robert Johnson, the music gets a denser quality through less-defined bass lines that finds freshness in melodic riffs played in higher registers. Belfour is already a master.
At his best, the guitarist, who was backed by a drummer for two numbers, drains whatever serenity there may be in acoustic blues and replaces it with a particular harshness. In the hands of Captain Beefheart and David Bromberg, the technique was considered art. Here, it’s a slice of reality.