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David 'Honeyboy' Edwards
Charlies, Tuesday 15th November 2005

Public Enemy

The Forum, Wednesday 16th Novemeber 2005

Reviewed by Ricardo.
Photos by Stephen Sleddon (Honeyboy) and Ricardo (Public Enemy)

It's been an innarresting week of gig going that got me to thinking about the nature of the blues, my own (white european) response to it and about how time, as they say, makes a change.

   

In the 1930's black Americans synthesised a musical style that gave voice to their disenfranchisement in the language and symbols of the era - The Blues. 50 years later, the playing field still not level, another generation of black Americans did exactly the same thing. The form was different, but a new synthesis evolved which expressed the daily realities of life for black people in America in terms relevant to the times. It became known as Hip Hop.

David 'Honeyboy' Edwards began his musical career in Mississippi in the 1930s, was a contemporary of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Big Joe Williams and can be counted as one of the few remaining links back to the origins of what we now understand as 'The Blues'. Public Enemy emerged in the 1980's as one of the leading forces of Hip Hop. Raw and direct and not without controversy, they championed a musical form that, as with the blues, was so compelling, the message so universal, that it was able to transcend it's specific origins and connect with people all around the world.

   

The links between blues and hip hop are widely recognised, but it was an interesting couple of gigs to attend back to back. Both, to an extent, were of 'historical' interest. With Honeyboy because of the rarity of living connections to those times and with Public Enemy because it felt almost like a nostalgia tour - the majority of the thirty/fortysomethings in the audience were, I suspect, there for 'back in the day' reminiscence reasons rather than to be right at the cutting edge of newest-latestness.

So a pair of gigs where the attendance, the act of homage, was almost the point of the thing. Thankfully then they both turned out to be good in their own right...

Organisers Geordie & John had, by all accounts, taken a bit of a chance in putting Honeyboy on. A £20 ticket on a Tuesday night in a one-off venue is no way to guarantee a crowd, but after a quietish start the venue filled out pretty well and hopefully we'll be seeing some more top international acts playing down there in the future.

Dave Peabody kicked things off with his laid back fingerstyle acoustic country blues - Blind Blakes 'Diddy Wah Diddy', and Blind Willie McTells 'Statesborough Blues' stood out, as well as his own 'Hard to write a blues when you're happy'. Towards the end of the set we had 'guest' turns with first Rob Mason, then Paul Lamb (what is it about the Northeast that turns up top harp players?) which got the energy up in the room ready for Honeyboy to take the stage.

   

Joined by long time associate Michael Frank (founder of Earwig Records - 'When the blues big bites, wig out!"), Honeyboy settles himself into his chair, straps on an electric guitar and launches into a deep, dark, dirty 'Rolling Stone'. His guitar playing has a sparse, raw feel, yet everything is there.

It's not particularly technical, and at times his 90 year old fingers aren't quite up to his ambition, but that sort of thing never really mattered anyway. What he is able to do fantastically well on the guitar is create a feeling, generate a vibe, that fits perfectly with the song and which fills out all the texture and tone, all the colour and vibrancy which is needed to bring it to life.

And then there's the voice. Again, it's all about texture and tone - deep, richly grained, and multi layered. His voice evokes a way of life that no-one in the audience can claim to have a real understanding of, but which Honeyboy conjures right there in front of us. 'Sweet Home Chicago', almost a joke cliche of a blues tune now, here played by a man who understands it's original meaning and context, is extraordinary, and fresh.



After some initial difficulty getting harp and guitar locked into sync it all comes together for Jimmy Rogers' 'That's Alright', and it turns out Michael Frank is a pretty good harmonica player who's clearly studied his Walters, large and small. Guitar wise, I was struck by the similarity between Honeyboy and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, but Whilst Auerbach's playing could be described as a post-modern deconstruction, it would be strange to say the same thing about Honeyboys. Draw your own conclusions about there being a 'correct' way to play the blues.

   

The music stops for a while as Frank orchestrates a story telling session with Honeyboy talking about recording with Alan Lomax - "He gave me 20 dollars - more money than I'd ever had. Took me a month to spend it in 1942!" - and various 'romantic' situations - "Time is out now. I used to be alright with the women but time is out now". For the second set they're joined by Dave Peabody and later another local legend, Big Joe Louis makes an appearance. There's a bit of struggling with Honeyboy's loose interpretation of the 'rules' - 'Long Chords' and 'Short Chords' as Peabody put it - but the overall sound is all the better for it.

Generally speaking, I'm deeply suspicious of the reverence which infects the blues. It seems that almost from the outset peaple were talking nonsense about 'authenticity' and claims for being the 'real deal' abound throughout the history of the music. To paraphrase Ray Charles, there are only two kinds of music - Good and Bad. Honeyboy's, I'm pleased to say, falls into the first category, regardless of how 'important' he may or may not be.



Bring that beat back! Public Enemy in er... full effect

The next night, another gig. This one started with a strange synchronisity. At the bar in a not especially packed Forum (or Town & Country Club if you're of a certain gig going age) I spotted a woman in a Paul Lamb and the Kingsnakes T-Shirt. Having already spent some time musing on the blues/hip hop question, and having seen Paul play with Honeyboy the night before, I was intrigued so I spoke to her. Turned out she's a Dutch florist whose friend gave her the shirt. She's not keen on the blues, or Hip Hop, and is only there because she's meeting someone. So much for grand theories.


About half past nine mate...

 

Anyway, back to Public Enemy. For those of you who don't know, this is the group that features Chuck D, as seen on the 'Godfathers & Sons' film in the Scorsese 'Blues' series hanging out with Marshall Chess. Like most of the crowd, Chuck's put on a bit of weight since the photos's for the cover of 1988's 'It Takes Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back' were taken, but he's still there in full, forceful, effect. Watching him made me think of the quiet power of Muddy Waters amongst all the rock shenanigins in 'The Last Waltz'. Flavor Flav's still checking what time it is on his now even more enormous chest clock and looking like a late period Miles Davis.

 

More ('silly') rabbit than Chas n' Dave...

Along with the full crew, including S1W's and band, they're still angry, still clever and still rockin' the great beats. Assisted by a genuinely knee trembling sound system they came on strong right from the start and we had all the big ones from the past as well as some newer material. I'll spare the Bluesinlondon reader too much detail, except to say that at one point, Chuck himself acknowledged the hip hop/blues connection, name checking blues greats while introducing the undoubtedly terrific band.

Now, if you think hip hop's all about bling and gangsta's and bitches and ho's, then I'd urge you to think again. Hip hop and the blues come from the same place, and the thing that connected you to the blues is the same thing that will connect you to hip hop. You could do worse than start with Public Enemy.

Peace.

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