Thursday, May 14, 2015



When he befriended Mississippi hill country blues legends R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Jessie Mae Hemphill, Ted Drozdowski had been the primary force in risk-taking alternative rock, a textural music ensemble, and psychedelic bands. All of these sounds come together in the tribute song “R.L. Burnside (Sleight Return),” which you can hear here.

In the full-length Robert Mugge (Deep Blues) 2010 documentary “Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues,” Drozdowski recalls, “R.L. Burnside, who I was very close to, R.L. didn’t actually know that I played guitar until I knew him for seven years. Because I felt like it wasn’t actually my place to impose my scene on him, you know? Then when he found out, he was the guy that really kicked my butt and made me start to play with him live. Even at that I had to be strenuously encouraged.

On night in Cambridge, MA in 1999, R.L. grabbed Ted by the shoulders and told him that he’d be calling him the third song from the end, telling the younger man, “I’m calling you up and I don’t hear any bullshit about it. R.L. stood up, gave me his amp to plug into, and grabbed his Jack 'n' coke and sang the song while he shook his ass dancing back and forth across the stage in front of a screaming sold-out house. It was kind of crazy. We played two more songs that are now blurs — although I think one of them was ‘Snake Drive.’ I held on for my life!”

Ted continues, “I went up and did it and I felt that that kind of flipped a switch for me and whenever we saw each other, he’d make me play with him again. Ultimately, R.L., Junior, and Jessie had a profound way not only on my playing but on my thinking as a person which fed back into my playing and those guys just changed my life and changed my playing and opened the door to the blues for me.” The ex-rocker’s narrative songwriting and tireless sonic explorations ultimately benefitted him in his open-minded approach to psychedelic blues.

 “R.L. Burnside (Sleight Return)” in particular has a driving, funky backbeat with a delay-tinged guitar over a tight funk riff. Though framed as a dream, Ted tells a true story of drinking whiskey with the legend. “R.L. and his band visited our home in Boston one night, and after dinner he wanted to watch a movie. He looked through hundreds of VHS tapes and selected ‘Check and Double Check’ with Amos and Andy — and he roared through it right from the first joke. When it was over, he told us about how he and his friends would save their money and ride their bikes from Holly Springs, MS all the way to Memphis when each new Amos and Andy movie hit the theaters, and then ride back at night. He said that when they saw headlights, they'd throw the bikes into the bushes and hide out for fear that it was night riders.” The guitar solo goes full-on hallucinatory while Ted utters R.L.’s refrain “well, well, well.” Like the album on which it resides “R.L. Burnside (Sleight Return)” is a culmination of sorts, bringing together his experimentalism with his hill country blues apprenticeship.

The song highlights a particular irony. Ted says, “So for me one of the interesting subtexts of the song is that Amos and Andy and night riders are both signposts of racism, and the complication is how much R.L. loved Amos and Andy. America is a strange prism sometimes.”

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