Punk and the Blues Evolution:
The Immortal Lee County Killers
Photo: Daniel Costen, courtesy the ILCK and Estrus Records
By D.A. NationOne reason that rock and roll, despite all its variations, remains a vital presence in modern music is that it appeals to the passionate, young and unskilled musicians of every upcoming generation. In its simplest form, punk rock, the power chorded mainstay of modern rock, is something that requires little more than an instrument and a little will power to master. The blues, on the other hand has gained tremendous stature in the past fifty years. A genre that was once considered primitive, the blues is now seen as something that must be taught - different scales, different chords- or bought at the price of a young man's soul. I hate to say it, but respect nearly took all the life out of the blues, turning it in to music played by noodle masters and pony-tailed middle-aged guitar gods who, despite their tremendous technical abilities and knowledge, cannot muster up the raw passion required to conjure up the true spirit of the blues. The blues is the music of the soul, at times exalting, guilt-laden, passionate, violent, and even mundane. It addresses the most pervasive qualities of the human spirit. It does have a recognizable structure, but do recall that some of the greatest players are remembered best for the liberties they took with the form.
Furthermore, the absorption of blues into our pop consciousness is undeniable. Who couldn't conjure up a twelve bar blues? Who can't recite a line about how their baby done left them? The faces of certain players like B.B. King, who lines his pocket with earnings from his Beale Street tourist bar and appearances with rock gods like Eric Clapton and U2, are immediately recognized cultural icons. It seems to me that popular culture clings to blues because its endorsement (voluntary or not) can add much needed legitimacy to less than vital institutions - such as lite beer consumer wars or the recording careers of tired, although amazingly enduring, British baby boomers. The blues has suffered from realizing its full marketing potential, from being spread too thin. That's why, as a person seeking living breathing blues players, I've gone punk.
The Immortal Lee County Killers, a punk delta duo out of Opelika Alabama, are the sonic combination of one guitar, one drum kit that doubles as a drink stand, three tube amps and the occasional harp which shares a spotlight with one set of beaten pipes. Their first full-length record, The Essential Fucked Up Blues, caught my attention, in part because of the title. Despite the fuzziness, the chaos, the brutal volume of this collection I maintain that not only is this music the blues, but that it signifies the genres evolution into a once again virile faction.
Cheetah Weise, the band's guitarist and singer, who also hold a masters degree in economics and teaches at the University of Alabama, believes that punk and blues mesh easily because the two forms are similar. "They are both honest reactions to life," he explains, "it's blues, it's our blues. It's just a bit turned up and a bit faster than most blues." Weise and drummer, Boss Sherrard, started playing in late eighties indy-punk bands such as the Quadrajets and Sphamm. Additionally their upbringings were of the suburban order that makes a lot of kids want to run fast and furious. Frenzied tempos are the result, as Weise puts it, of being "bored, restless and really wanting to get someplace else quick. Suburbia, high school they just weren't real exciting."
In respectful manner, Weise nods his head to one of the originators of punk blues, Jon Spencer, founding member of Pussy Galore and mastermind behind the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a band that tried and often succeeded to play blues through a fragmented postmodern filter. "I'd be a liar," Weise confesses, "to say they haven't influenced us." The difference, according to, between the Killers and the Blues Explosion is that "they're from New York, we're from Alabama." While I don't think geography explains it all, southern roots can wrap a strangle hold around a person, making escapism more necessary and more difficult. It's part of the reason that the blues were originated in he South and part of the reason why the Killers brand of punk blues has a more primitive quality than Spencer's.
In heart, this new blues springs from the present day sense of frustration; a creepy fear that there is no reason for anything, no pattern or logic to suffering or, for that matter, happiness. It is this kind of aimless oblivion wailing blues that makes the opening track on The Essential Fucked Up Blues, "Let's Get Killed" resonate so honestly, and painfully. It's a song whose start and stop structure recalls Hooker's anti-rhythm and Hound Dog Taylor's love of feedback and distortion as much as it does anything in the punk rock vein. In Killer's fashion, it begins with a rhythm that repeatedly builds and disintegrates. That's the backdrop over which Weise lays guitar lines that clash finger picking with power chords, sounding like stunted ideas. Rather than sloppy or unskilled it feels reactionary and uncontrived, conveying emotions that couldn't be explained better in another way. That is the essential beauty of the blues form, and punk blues, in that respect, does maintain the tradition. It's similar to cubism, in that no matter how fragmented, the elements are there.
The Killers use confusion as their greatest tool. Their cover of Muddy Water's "Rolling Stone" is a perfect example. Disoriented listeners are forced to reach for recognizable shards of sound, and to recreate the music from pieces. Nuances are reborn in a miasma of feedback and on a few occasions surrounded by dead air, and they stand out to speak rather than wash away into familiarity.
When asked about the inspiration for his blues, Weise recalls an incident that happened this past Easter. "I was recording a rock n' roll band called Whistle Bait one night," he tells me, "and some joker smashed out the window of the drummers car and stole a few things from her. I couldn't believe it. She was inside working her ass off, making music, and this guy violates her life and risks jail on Easter night for a f'in cell phone. In the long run, the only thing that will remain important about that night was Whistle Bait finishing their record." Through trial and tragedy come frustration and ultimately perseverance and redemption. That is and has always been the foundation of the blues.
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