|The first time when I heard anything close to the blues was when I listened to the Led Zeppelin III vinyl as the opening notes to, “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” crooned from the record player. Soon enough, my introduction to the blues became my infatuation with the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy.
As time passed, the wailing guitar solos and predictable lyrics no longer appealed to me as I sought out other blues bands. Yet as a 14-year-old teen, hip hop and rap dominated the airwaves and for years, I was also unable to find any modern blues bands or songwriters.
However, it seems that there is resurgence in the blues as modern bands of the Black Keys and Jack White revolutionize the blues, making it more relevant and digestible by a wider audience.
Granted, some may call it ridiculous to classify The Black Keys or Jack White purely as blues bands and I agree. But it would also be ridiculous to completely rule out their prominent blues elements. The origin of blues started primarily on ethos or the “feel” of the music rather than the composition of music itself. The composition of the music placed an emphasis on improvisation and simplicity as well.
In an interview with Musicraider in 2011, Dan Auerbach, the guitarist to the Black Keys, commented on his style:
“At some point you have to put the guitar down, stop practicing and read a book. Just try to get influenced by something other than music. And I think that (ethos) has helped me. I don’t really practice anymore; I like the feeling of picking up a guitar and being like, “Whoa, how do I work this think again?”
So although Auerbach, may also find the blues “watered down and so boring,” it is also his foundation. His sultry incantatory falsetto and wailing but simplistic guitar solos are all reminiscent to Howlin’ Wolf and RI Burnside. However, Jack White reaps his blues influences with a little more pride than his other blues counterparts.
“Anything I do is 1,000 percent in the blues,” he said to the Rolling Stone. “That word is synonymous with the truth to me.”
His blues influences have been apparent since the early days of the White Stripes -- especially through his performances. Nothing is very soothing or processed from his high and quivering yowls, to his clawing, urgent, and improvised guitar solos which only leaves room for a very raw and attitude driven performance.
But White’s blues influences have been even more apparent in his solo work. In “Love Interruption” of Blunderbuss, he croons the notes to his ghastly lyrics, “I want love to murder my own mother and take her off to somewhere like hell.” Just like older blues artists, White is conflicted with a range of emotions: from pretentious, to ghostly, to frustration, to intimate -- but is still very sincere about his vocal content.
The real question is how are these blues-influenced artists staying relevant in a world primarily saturated in pop and hip hop?
For the Black Keys, it's the culmination of their years and willingness to experiment that allows the brothers to produce their certain brand. And although some may disagree, their music has evolved in every sense.
From their early beginnings of their album The Big Come Up (riddled with urgent, distorted guitar riffs) to their newest album El Camino (their most radio- friendly record), it's clear that their music has changed, but definitely for the better.
In 2009, they outgrew their limiting genre of blues-rock by collaborating with hip-hop’s most renowned, Mos Def, in the Blackrock Project. In “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo),” they pushed the boundaries of the blues by including the raw hiphop delivery of Mos Def but still kept the blues staple of call and response through Auerbach’s throaty and raspy, “la la la.”
Fast-forward three years later and their new sound is louder, catchier, and more rebellious. Their ability to infuse their blues colors, reminiscent of their earlier years in The Big Come Up, with the other popular genres of punk, rockabilly, and soul have really worked in their favor. Not only does it appeal to a larger demographic than just the rock n roll purist, but also creates a more pressurized, hysteric, and intense version of the blues. Also, in their latest record, they conceived much more uptempo songs: from their FM radio friendly song, “Sisters,” to their rockabilly flare fuzz hit, “Lonely Boy,” their eyes are aimed squarely at accessibility. And where selling 100,000 in the first week is considered an accomplishment, their ability to sell over 200,000 records in the first week is a feat in itself.
For Jack White it’s easier to see why he's stayed relevant. Besides the fact that he is still riding the coattails of his success with The White Stripes, he is still a very accomplished solo musician. Blunderbuss is a testament to that.
In his new album, he explores a plethora of genres from R&B, funk, folk, and rock n roll ballads. It’s inherently strange but Jack White’s ability to make stripped-down music that's notably folk and blues rooted, fosters the growth and emergence of the blues.
An article from Rolling Stone stated, “With the homespun, stripped to its skeleton minimalism of the White Stripes, he found a way to plug the music back into the folk and blues roots that fed the Stones, Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan -- and make it sound cool again in the process.” If there is one thing White has to thank for the White Stripes is that he still has that mentality while making his own music. It is not wholly blues but traces of it are still present. Rolling Stone took a note of one of his most accomplished tactics that's clearly rooted in the blues -- his genuine and raw vocal delivery in Blunderbuss -- saying it's “full of brilliant songs about how love tears your body and soul to shreds, slams your fingers in the door, grinds your face in the dirt.”
What really attests to Jack White’s ability to revolutionize the blues is his virtuosic guitar playing. You might disagree, as he’s not the most technical musician, dazzling audiences with sweeping arpeggios.
Jimi Hendrix once said, “The blues isn’t hard to play, but is hard to feel.” And although Jack White isn’t the best guitar player, he still can “feel” the blues, which is what many other technical guitarists lack. An article for The Register Guard called “Jack White Turns Blue,” said that he “continues to push the screechy texture of his playing.” His ability to improvise and experiment with different sounds allows him to break the boundaries of the simple distortion, overdrive, and compression associated with the blues. In the same article it’s stated:
“He would scrap songs and reform them in another style; call in the female band one day and just the guys the next; feign a prepared song and improvise something on the spot. The opening riff from “Sixteen Saltines” came out of simply trying to test the reverb.”
His remarkable fluidity as a guitarist allows him to capture the rawness of the blues but still break the stereotypical staples of wailing guitars, and crunchy riffs that are often associated with blues guitarists.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jack White said:
“A hundred years had passed since the beginning of it (blues), and it was an illusion in my head at that moment that on a very small level, there was a new blues emerging…but I had no illusions about the mainstream ever thinking it was interesting.”
Sure enough Jack White, himself, and the Black Keys have done that and propelled the blues to the mainstream that will not only appeal to a wider, unprecedented audience but also inevitably send the blues in a new direction.