Credit- Fat Possum Records
RL Burnside is an under-appreciated master of rhythm. Burnside recorded some in his youth but went widely unnoticed for decades unlike his contemporaries, one of which included Mississippi Fred McDowell (who was at one point his next door neighbor). But Burnside continued to play despite his lack of fame and recognition. Performances were occasionally captured throughout the years but he continued his work as a farmer to support his music habit. Burnside was perfectly captured in his ‘element’ by Alan Lomax during a home recording on his property in Independence, Mississippi in 1978. See My Jumper Hanging on the Line is as close as you can get to perfect for a true bluesman. He’s outside in his own yard, strumming away at a cheap guitar plugged into a cheap practice amp while a baby cries in the background and he puts you in a trance.
Burnside on Burnside, however, captures RL’s performance element, a glimpse of which can be seen in this 10 minute clip at Junior Kimbrough’s Juke Joint. Burnside is leading a full band (which includes his grandson, Cedric), plugged in, and commanding a crowd. Considering the albums/recordings that exist from his earlier career are mostly acoustic or solo, this live album from 2001 captures another kind of magic, Burnside’s showmanship.
A perfect recording of mid-century juke joint from back in the 60’s and before doesn’t seem to exist, but Burnside on Burnside matches what we’ve been given descriptions of. The crowd is an active participant in the performance. Burnside is tossing jokes, talking back and forth and directing the whole show. Burnside’s guitar work takes his trademark Mississippi drone and keeps it kicking for nearly an hour of fast paced, foot tapping blues. Burnsides presence and comfort on stage is shows as he displays the presence of mind to mix up his simple riffs just enough to keep his audience engaged and dancing up front. These changes are subtle and masterful- I discover new variations sticking out every time I hear them. Burnside at this point had been playing blues for over 50 years, and you begin to think that not one of those shows were identical.
This is a blues party album, a perfect soundtrack to a true juke joint. You don’t need to sit down and listen to the depth and emotionality of his lyrics or the meaning behind them, you just need to turn it up and let that rhythm get into your bones.