A juke and jive with Cedric Burnside

by Ryan Snyder

“Through my teeth and under my tongue, look out stomach because here it come,” said Cedric Burnside as he raised a glass of red wine to the crowd at High Rock Outfitters on Saturday night. “Famous words of T-Model Ford. Just about lost all the greats.” Technically, the third-generation Hill Country bluesman was correct; Ford’s death 18 days earlier probably leaves Mose Allison and James Cotton among the oldest living envoys of country blues — a tradition that’s experienced accelerated attrition over the past two years — and even they aren’t strict practitioners. Burnside, the grandson of the late, great master RL Burnside, deferentially overlooked a perspective shared by his Lexington audience by the end of his exhausting two-hour party:Hhe is indeed one of the greats.

And it weren’t nothing but a party, as Burnside was quick to remind the room once he took his preferred seat behind the drum kit, and again and again whenever the dancing failed to keep up with his unforgiving endurance. Burnside’s brief introductory stanza on acoustic guitar was at the same time a tip of the hat to the rigorous tradition from which he came and an opportunity to present his famous grandfather’s most notable work as it was conceived, matching the elder Burnside’s open-G pitch without the capo on a unadorned recitation of “Poor Black Mattie,” whose electric version has become the standard to contemporary ears thanks to Luther Dickinson. If there was a hint that Burnside was trying to give his audience a taste of what his departed grandfather was like on stage, it came as he looked over the healthy crowd and uttered, in a deep, swampy accent, “Well, well, well.”

Burnside didn’t shy away from the electric/ acoustic confluence, bringing on his scintillating young sideman, guitarist Trenton Ayers, and a guest from the audience on drums for selections from the Cedric Burnside Project’s 2011 record The Way I Am. Burnside’s songwriting is often quick to point to the more ribald side of the Hill Country idiom that showed up in his grandfather’s deeper cuts, and later made a style all its own by Theodis Ealey (his sense of humor reflects it, with a localized version of the classic “Shame & Scandal” bit slipped in to give himself a breather). Of his many homages to the women that he’s known, “Firecracker” offered the most melodically, with Burnside’s bristly high baritone singing the tricky rhythm to his own lead. Its content was tame compared to “That Girl Is Bad,” however, where he laid out a frank account of a really good lay, singing, “The things she did to my ding-a-ling had me calling her name.”

The elder Burnside was a Dali of playing pick-free and his grandson has skillfully adopted his freewheeling style, but the performance took on an entirely different tenor when he moved behind the kit. For one, Ayers beamed ear-to-ear the moment he was handed the lead duties — the irregular tunings he revealed when he strummed his guitar between songs contradicted the blood-and-guts tonalities he drew out with his slide. The amped-up cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” could have easily been mistaken for Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song,” as Burnside opted for a lengthy rhythmic passage to lead into it.

Obviously, Burnside’s combined virtuosity as a vocalist and drummer is the crux of his excellence. One is led to imagine Burnside learning under the tutelage of his grandfather, a rough-and-tumble former sharecropper, as an unforgiving undertaking. If so, his skills are all the better for it. Burnside treats drumming like there’s nothing on the other side of his set, as if it were to all end right there, swinging hammer-sized sticks and turning out one-handed floor tom-ride cymbal sixteenth runs with uncanny precision while executing a flawless counter-rhythm on the other. That he makes his transitions in and out of his vocal parts look so easy is dumbfounding.

If Burnside is indeed a vessel of decades of accumulated Hill Country lore, there might be no better stage in the Triad to present it than High Rock Outfitters. Whether the stage’s corrugated metal backdrop was recovered from the roof of some dilapidated tobacco barn or carefully blowtorched to mimic the aesthetic of reclaimed materials is unimportant; it and the slowly oscillating fans overhead create an exquisite setting for the blues. It doesn’t hurt that High Rock Outfitters has one of the finest homegrown house bands in the region at its disposal in Rev. Scoggins’ Funkadelic Tent Revival. The apocalyptic blues unit features multi-instrumentalist Kevin Scoggins out front channeling Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, banging his guitar strings with a drumstick or tambourine, and in a chaotic finale with Burnside, breaking off the melody to Jimi Hendrix’s “Who Knows” on saxophone amidst near calamity after midnight. But like Burnside said, it ain’t nothin’ but a party.