By Samuel J Fell.
Cedric Burnside / Warren Earl Band – Mullumbimby RSL – March 12, 2020.
The rain has stopped. Mullumbimby gleams under street lights, the odd car moving slowly down the main drag past the Middle Pub, more light spilling out onto wet concrete, a small clutch of regulars clustered around high tables inside clad in an odd assortment of flannelette, hi-viz and corduroy; quintessentially Mullum.
Elsewhere, it’s quiet. No one walking the damp streets, shops closed, a typical Thursday night in a small town back off the coast surrounded by verdant cane fields and cow paddocks. Car parks are empty and even the pizza joint has shut its doors.
Around the corner, on the top edge of town, the RSL squats with open door, and it’s here that something is happening, music spilling from the open side-room inside, drowning out the ring and shuttle of the pokies down the back, the constant chat from the band of old blokes sitting off to the side of the bar where they’ve been for eons, and they don’t care about you.
The music spilling out swings with a vociferous intent and it grows as you walk through the half curtain into the dark room, the Warren Earl Band on the brightly lit stage in front of a small sea of tables, heavily populated – indeed, there are more people here than out and about elsewhere in town tonight, make no mistake.
Earl sits to the side working his pedal steel with an ease enviable to any guitar slinger in the place (and there are plenty dotted about the growing audience), while Diego Zaragoza stands with electric in front of the microphone, Rod Coe’s doghouse bass huge behind him, Pete Wilkins flat-capped behind the small kit with the imposing figure of Cam Smith off to the other side, trumpet in hand, rounding out a western swing quintet that cook and shuffle with aplomb.
They’re a country group, but spun into this sonic tapestry is a healthy dose of blues, for this pair are never too far apart, and Earl and Co. easily bring these sounds together and push them back out, Smith’s trumpet an exquisite addition to a set that would have you believe these five had been playing together since the 1920s and ‘30s when Bob Wills was just starting up and people like Merle Travis were heard to say (later on), “When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing.”
There’s a crew of metalheads out the back, around a dozen of them, smoking cigarettes, well behaved like most metalheads are. I don’t know what they made of Earl and his crew, but it’s obvious they’re here for tonight’s main draw, which has me tagging them as decent enough music aficionados, recognising as they surely do, that their brutal and heavy music emanated from the sounds we’re all waiting for tonight. They’re here to see how it all began.
Cedric Burnside walks onto the stage – now cleared, containing just a couple of guitars and the same small kit – and grins, he thanks the crowd and sits with just his acoustic guitar and begins his set, the first half of which is just him and his instrument, playing mostly older tunes made famous by his grandfather (RL), his father (Calvin Jackson), the luminaries who’ve come before him (Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, et al) who’ve made this Mississippi hill country brand of blues such a meaningful and real one.
The music is simple. Almost so simple as to have you wondering if it’s supposed to be so. Burnside’s voice mudslides, thick and full and it barrels towards you; it’s his voice which ties it all together – not the guitar, or the lyrics (which themselves are also very simple), but his voice, a solid base from which the scruffiness of the music (as defines the genre) can do what it pleases. It’s being played in front of us, but it seems so very, very old.
Burnside winds his solo set up and introduces his drummer, Reed Watson, who ambles out and sits behind the tubs while Burnside picks up one of the electric guitars which have been sitting in the background. The crowd have been waiting for this; the hum and rumble of the hill country, straight outta Holly Springs, Mississippi, electrified, fed through an amp and out into your face.
He starts with ‘We Made It’, the opening salvo from Benton County Relic, his debut solo record released last year to much acclaim, and it’s this track that sparks the audience and Burnside relaxes into the groove while Watson keeps it solid behind him and people start to get up and tentatively meander down the front where there’s space to move, to become one with the groove, to dance to the boogie blues.
It’s this format which has inspired countless imitators, The White Stripes and The Black Keys perhaps the most famous among them, and it’s easy to see why – hill country blues relies on repetition which in turn builds a trance-like groove. It’s heavy for the most part, at least in Burnside’s hands, it’s foot-stomping, house-rocking music and he grins over it all as he thumps the fat bottom string and creates bluesy riffage with the rest. Watson builds foundations behind him, deadpan face, fluid body.
People lose inhibition and the floor fills with flailing limbs and Mullum boogies, getting lost in the groove.
It’s a short set. But a powerful one. Again, even when playing electric, it’s right in front of us, but it seems so old. Burnside has pedigree, he’s been there from the very beginning of his life. He has literally sat at the feet of RL and listened to the blues and in turn, over the years, he’s absorbed it all and is now sharing it with anyone who cares to listen, and plenty care. They care a lot.
Back outside afterwards, the streets are still slick and lit up quietly under a sepia glow. It seems odd that things are so quiet after what we’ve just seen, but it’s not long, as you meander back down the main drag and head out of town, that you remember this is just Mullum on a Thursday night, surrounded by verdant cane fields and cow paddocks. No people around, shops closed. But full of ancient blues tonight, and while most tucked away dry somewhere won’t have known, it’ll be some time before that full house forgets the boogie and the drone, the blues from long ago, played just now, ancient and alive, in good hands.