April 2, 2008

The Blues … and Not The Kraft Mac ‘N’ Cheese Kind

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Perhaps the most American music is blues. The blues — short for the depressing, sad and lonely “blue devil” spirits — came primarily out of African American slave culture and its slow spirituals. In the early 20th century, the legendary guitarist and Delta singer Robert Johnson, a prolific womanizer who met death in the form of poisoned whiskey served to him by a cuckolded bar owner somewhere in the Deep South, gave us the 12 bar format that remains the standard today.
Despite being a seminal influence on the genre’s development, Johnson recorded less than 40 songs in his entire lifetime; to hear them, and what a single man can do with two hands, a guitar and a voice, must be something like watching the creation of the world. The sound quality is sketchy at best, but all of Johnson’s genius and soul comes beaming through whatever inadequacies early studios must have had: Nearly a hundred years later and the music still sounds new. Perhaps only two other musicians — Jimi Hendrix and Steve Ray Vaughan — can even touch what Johnson did for blues guitar.
Every Monday night, The Nines on College Ave. hosts its weekly Blues Monday with Pete Panek and the Blue Cats followed by an open jam session. Pete and his group have been playing Monday night sets for years, maybe even since before I was born. Besides Pete on lead guitars and vocals, his backing ensemble — drums, bass, and keyboard — is a tight, if not unspired, rhythm section. The drummer chooses to play on a tiny kit consisting of only a bass, snare, hi-hat and cymbal (which he rarely uses) but it’s enough to lock in with the eually competent bassist. Although when I was there his solos were often lacking any feeling (and worse, rhythm), Pete’s pianist does a good job keeping in line with the leader.
Panek himself is a truly agile and talented guitarist. He plays an American Fender Telecaster with hardly any effect so that the sound is crisp, and every note comes through. When he sings, Pete builds interesting chords to keep the sound engaging in addition to quick fills in between vocal lines; his solos legitimately call on influences ranging from Jeff Beck to Eric Clapton. Despite the nearly empty bar, Panek really tore it up from the depths of his emotional and musical capacity, and it was a joy to see such a spirited performance, especially where I was least expecting it.
The beauty of blues music is that since its basic template is so simple — four bars on the tonic key, two on the subdominant, or fourth interval, two on the tonic, then one each on the dominant (fifth) and subdominant, then two final bars with a turnaround in the tonic — mere strangers can get together on stage and play together. So for an hour a group of regulars and newbies alike took turns calling out root keys and jamming on a few cycles each before starting all over again. The guys on stage were playing for themselves and no one else, and they were doing it together. To me, that is the very definition of music.