Friday, March 5, 2010

Uplifted by the blues - Lightnin' Hopkins

I’m not sure if I’m weird, or if I’m missing something, or if everyone finds listening to the blues to be strangely uplifting – but I do, and so I was a pretty easy target when, a few weeks ago on the PBS Breakfast Spread, presenter Matt practically ordered his listeners to buy Lightnin’ and the Blues: The Herald Sessions, the music of Texas country bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Whatever explains the effect of the blues on me, you’ve got to admit that Lightnin’ Hopkins is pretty nice to listen to. His generally slow and easy rhythms; the familiar, straightforward 12 bar chord progressions that don’t need to be dressed up in anything else because they sound just fine, just right, as they are; the contemplative commentary from Lightnin’s guitar, swapping lines with his earthy voice, sauntering over all those blues notes and then diving down into rugged bass depths, with voice and guitar together carrying the world-weariness, the melancholy, of the music like it was an old friend – it all somehow eases itself into your soft and gooey bits, and nestles itself there, curled up and purring.

The constant exchange between guitar and voice, like a conversation over a glass of whisky, on a back porch in summer, or by an open fire in winter, is perhaps part of what gives this music its ability to somehow feel calmed and comforted. It’s like the vocal line pours out its soul, its woes, and the guitar replies was some sage advice and a reassurance that “yes, I know what you mean”, and all of sudden things aren’t so bad anymore.

Most of the songs here are true to that same form – but it’s a form that works well and, even when it’s occasionally punctuated with something more upbeat, like ‘Lightnin’s Boogie’ or ‘Lightnin’s Special’, it’s nice not to have the music’s spell broken. It’s nice to let it flow over you, like cool water in summer, and then to be able just to bathe in it and not to have to think about too much other than how good it all feels.

Not that it’s exactly what you’d call “feel good” music, though, not in the traditional makes-you-want-to-go-and-hug-your-children sort of way. Here the cool waters are not the pure crystal clear lakes that you find nuzzling at the feet of mountains, with little flowers floating on them, but rather waters that have flown through mud and grit and that feel good because sometimes getting all grubby is just the best thing in the world to do.

Made in 1959, this album has been around as long as I have and I would be over the moon if I could have aged as well as this music has: still looking good and graceful, still sounding stylish and sexy, and still able to drink the whole night and not have a sore head in the morning.

You can really pick out practically any song on this album to see what Lightnin’ is doing here – other than those couple of boogie interludes, and the final ‘My Little Kewpie Doll’ (before you get to the bonus tracks) – it’s all much the same.

That might be cause for complaint with some musicians and on some albums but, when the music, and what it does to you, is as good as it is here on Lightnin’ and the Blues: The Herald Sessions, it’s only all the more reason to do exactly what Matt told you to do, and go out and get the album.

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