a snapshot of Mississippi blues

Deep Blues (Atlantic)
Various Artists

By Mark Clark

Deep Blues — the soundtrack to an upcoming film on little-known Mississippi blues performers — shimmers like an oasis in the plastic desert of popular music.

It is genuine, often raw, always powerful. And, best of all, it's fun.

As Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer, who assembled this soundtrack and worked on the film, writes in the liner notes: "This is not folk music … this is music from the heart of rock and roll. Play it very loud.

About half the selections are unvarnished solo acoustic numbers, most of them recorded in private homes and most of them Robert Johnson covers or originals that sound remarkably similar to Johnson's work. The other half of the material features full-sized, electric bands, recorded in tiny clubs such as Kimbrough's Joint in Holly Springs, Miss. and the Playboy Club in Greenville, Miss. It's flashier, more Chicago-style blues fare, laced with brain-splintering, buzzsaw guitar chops.

The only track that doesn't fit neatly into those two categories is the album's best, Jr. Kimbrough's dark, brooding "Jr.'s Blues." Kimbrough, after building a sinister-sounding electric riff, launches a soaring, careening, plane crash of a guitar solo.

The best acoustic selections include 87-year-old Jack Owens' "Devil Blues," a brutally beautiful track. Owens sounds as if he might fall over dead at any moment, from the effort he pours into his performance. Lonnie Pritchford performs a pair of remarkably faithful Johnson covers, "Terraplane Blues" and "If I Had Possession over Judgement Day."

The electric cuts, as a whole, aren't as satisfying, but remain enjoyable. Big Jack Johnson's three songs — "Catfish Blues," "Daddy, When Is Mama Coming Home" and "Big Boy Now"—are lightweight, even silly. ("Big Boy Now" is predicated on Johnson's yodeling ability.) Johnson's sound features a triple-guitar attack and gravely, B.B. King-like vocals. Palmer selects five cuts from R.L. Burnside, including a trio recorded with Burnside's electric band – all three upbeat, mainstream blues packing high-voltage guitar solos.