Crowds don’t need to know blues history to enjoy genre

A lot of people in the audience at blues guitarist Chris Thomas King’s shows don’t necessarily know
Modern blues musician Chris Thomas King will play at The Linda in Albany on Friday.
Modern blues musician Chris Thomas King will play at The Linda in Albany on Friday.

A lot of people in the audience at blues guitarist Chris Thomas King’s shows don’t necessarily know the full story of his music — and King is fine with that.

Since his minor but pivotal role in the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou” as Tommy Johnson — a Delta blues musician who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical abilities, a la the myths surrounding Robert Johnson — King has seen his audience steadily increase.

Further roles as Blind Willie Johnson in 2003’s “The Soul of a Man” and as Ray Charles’ guitarist Lowell Fulson in the 2004 biopic “Ray” further cemented a following that is more familiar with pop culture than the long history of blues music.

“They were first introduced to me with an acoustic instrument, so they might have that perception of me,” King said from his home in Louisiana about a week before heading out for an East Coast tour with his trio, which heads to The Linda on Friday night. “They probably don’t really know that my first album came out in 1986, that I’ve had 15 or 16 albums and that 75 percent of my music is electric blues.

Chris Thomas King

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany

How Much: $18

More Info: 465-5233 ext. 4,

“Sometimes when you play in a genre of music like jazz and blues, the old genres that have been around for 100 years, sometimes people come out expecting you to play the songbook or the classic repertoire, something like that of these genres — if you’re a horn player, people think you’re going to get onstage and play like John Coltrane, or if you’re a guitar player, they think you’ll come up and play classic blues songs,” he continued.

‘Be myself’

“I’m pretty fortunate to have an audience that really don’t know who some of my influences are. They just kind of like what I do — they’re familiar with my movies and my music; they buy tickets to my shows based on that, and all I have to do is be myself and do my own songbook.”

For close to three decades, King hasn’t been content to just emulate blues tradition — although he’s well-versed in it, as the son of blues musician Tabby Thomas, who ran the blues club Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall in Baton Rouge until 2004. Over the years, he has added elements of hip-hop and electronic music to his sound, rapping, singing and playing both acoustic and electric guitars, as well as a host of other instruments on many of his albums.

This genre-melding approach has put King at odds with blues traditionalists over the years. His 1995 album “21st Century Blues . . . From Da ’Hood,” the first of two heavily hip-hop influenced albums King released, was rejected by both Warner and Sony before finally seeing release on RCA/BMG subsidiary Private Music. Even after its release, many festivals and clubs refused to book him.

“As a painter in the art world, Picasso, when he was in Spain, really learned how to paint a perfect portrait of a subject,” King said. “My father is a blues musician, he’s

84 years old — we had a blues club that I grew up working in for 25 years. I know how to play traditional blues, but like Picasso, who took the eye and put it on the cheek — he knew how to paint a perfect portrait, but he had a different vision; he wanted to shake things up and say something different with his art. My hip-hop blues is kind of like my Picasso of blues music and culture.”

His set for the past few years has focused mainly on his two newest albums, 2011’s “Antebellum Postcards” and 2012’s “Bona Fide,” as well as some acoustic-driven songs from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which won Album of the Year at the 2002 Grammy Awards.

He’ll be playing with drummer Jeff Mills and bassist Danny Infante, who have been touring with him for the past few years on the East Coast.

“We jazz things up a little bit and try to get people dancing,” King said. “I know the definition of the blues is melancholy, sad and depressed, but believe me, there’s nothing melancholy, sad and depressed about a Saturday night in New Orleans. We try to bring the New Orleans spirit to our concerts.”

New Orleans focus

Musically “Antebellum Postcards” and “Bona Fide,” which were recorded almost in conjunction with each other, focus on the New Orleans music and Louisiana blues that King has been surrounded by since his youth. Lyrically, the albums also recall New Orleans, with songs such as “Sketches of Tremé” from “Antebellum Postcards,” and its counterpart “Mind Over Matter” on “Bona Fide.”

“On both albums, there’s a song on each of them, which in my mind is part one and part two,” King said. “The song on ‘Antebellum Postcards’ is a song that’s become a favorite of the live shows, ‘Sketches of Tremé.’ Tremé is an old neighborhood in New Orleans that had a town square called Congo Square, and the square was known for its rhythm. Many people say the birth of the blues [was there], in a way. And the song that connects on ‘Bona Fide’ is ‘Mind Over Matter,’ and we feature djembe on those songs. So we try to conjure some of the spirit, some of the imagery, if you will, from the beginnings of New Orleans music, and my music.”

The subject is one King has returned to often. In 2006, following both the loss of his house and studio in Hurricane Katrina, he released the deeply personal “Rise,” which tackled everything from the U.S. government’s response to the storm, to darker themes of loss and death. Now, more than seven years on, the city is a different place, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in King’s opinion.

“There’s been an influx of a lot of new people that were attracted to New Orleans by learning so much about it from Katrina,” he said. “They wanted to be a part of its rebirth, and it is definitely going through a rebirth. It’s different — I’m not saying it’s better or not as good, just different than what it was before.”

Categories: Entertainment

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