Where Two Worlds Collide
Keith Brown is in the midst of his second set on a recent Wednesday night at the BamBoo Room in Lake Worth. Perhaps two dozen people are scattered nearby on chairs, sofas, and stools or standing attentively in the back of the room near the bar and billiard tables. Brown is beginning to hit his stride. The people listen, more attentively now, as the BamBoo Room's newly appointed artist in residence wades through his repertoire of old Delta blues songs.
Brown's first set was somewhat perfunctory. He seemed distracted by clattering pool balls and their noisy shooters. Worse, a small herd of middle-aged-housewife types nattered incessantly at a table barely 15 feet from where Brown sat on stage armed with nothing but his voice and an amplified acoustic guitar to fend off their squealing revelry. The 36-year-old Delta blues practitioner played as well as might be expected under the circumstances, but he didn't appear altogether pleased when he finished the first set and headed out to the patio for a smoke and a few moments of relative tranquility.
When Brown returned the housewives were gone. The pool shooters were still at it, but Brown silenced them a few songs into his second set with the slowly building force and intensity of his performance. Soon they were just like everyone else in the room: silent observers subdued and held rapt by the raw, delicate music falling from the speakers.
For the most part, Brown plays songs that originated somewhere in the Mississippi Delta anywhere from 60 to 75 years ago. It takes a great deal of concentration and quietude to do them right -- to somehow call forth the settled spirit of the music. In certain respects what Brown does for a living at the BamBoo Room four nights a week is hold a musical séance. He is a medium of sorts. People gather around with cocktails and cigarettes, awaiting those unpredictable, inexplicable moments when the singer-guitarist forges a tangible connection with his storied blues forebears of the Delta, most of whom have long since gone to dust. Midway through the second set, one such moment finally arrives.
Brown is dressed conservatively in soft leather shoes, beige khaki pants, and a short-sleeve olive dress shirt with one button left undone at the collar -- hardly the bare feet and soiled bib overalls of the stereotypical Delta bluesman. "I don't go for the image thing," he says later. "I just do what I do." His skin is a deep, polished walnut. Within the soft, yellow spray of the stage lights, it glistens under the thinnest sheen of sweat, accentuating the impressive musculature of his hands and forearms. His face is clean-shaven, as is the top of his head -- it looks as smooth as burnished marble. He has pretty, almond-shape eyes. When open they are warm, searching, and vaguely stubborn. Now, however, they are closed. He leans into the microphone -- a solemn confessor on the verge of revealing some secret expanse of hallowed Southern drama -- so as to be heard:
I got a letter this mornin'.
How do you reckon it read?
Said you better come on home, son.
That girl you love is dead.
The song is called "Death Letter" or "Death Letter Blues." It was written and recorded by Son House for the Columbia label in 1965, though the origins of the song probably predate 1965 by decades. It's difficult to tell. Like many of the old Delta musicians, House never did much recording, and no one outside the rural South kept tabs on his doings and whereabouts until the folk and blues revival in the late '50s and early '60s. Beyond his handful of recordings that reach back to his first in 1930, what is known of House is that he was one of the most influential of the early Delta bluesmen. He had a direct, discernible influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, two names from the Delta that have survived the passing of generations.
House's music brings out the best in Brown. He employs his remarkably expressive, fingerpicking style of slide guitar-playing to full effect. His voice, similar in tone and color to House's, is a rich, resonant, and forceful baritone instrument. In abrupt surges it swells and ebbs over the lyrics. "Son House taught me that I could sing like that," Brown says of the man he has long revered but never met. "When I found Son House, that was it. I was, like, this is me."
Well I grabbed up my suitcase,
I took off down the road.
When I got there she's layin'
On the coolin' board.
Brown's rendering is haunting. His audience hangs suspended in some timeless place where the past and present are fused into a single, majestic entity. The feeling that someone just kicked reality out from under your feet is not easily shaken when the song finally ends. It's difficult to believe that the handsome fellow on stage has been professionally conducting these sorts of transcendent musical ceremonies for only four years.
Brown grew up in Memphis, a former mecca for blues artists from all over the South that lies along the Mississippi River just north of the uppermost reaches of the Delta. He grew up, he says, an only child, a "loner-type person" whose tastes ran more to rock 'n' roll and classic R&B than to acoustic blues. "I mean I knew songs from every station on the radio," he recalls, his clipped Memphis drawl still prominent. "Whatever I heard I would try to sing with it. The guitar came later."
Brown had no pronounced passion for the guitar. It was merely an instrument that better facilitated his all-encompassing compulsion simply to sing. He enrolled for evening classes at the University of Memphis as a journalism major after high school and took classical guitar lessons for two semesters. He drew from those lessons exactly what he wanted: a basic understanding of chord structures and progressions -- knowledge he quickly applied to more vocal-oriented styles of music. "Once I learned how to play chords," he says, "I was gone. I mean I was gone, man. It was just amazing to me. All the songs on the radio with all this nice melody and everything, they were mostly just basic chords."
As discoveries go, Brown's wasn't exactly up there with the polio vaccine. But for a lonesome young man who loved to sing, the guitar opened up a world of previously unimagined possibilities. "When I heard a song I liked," he remembers, "I used to go to the music store and not buy the book, but I would stand there for about 15 minutes and memorize the chords to the song, and I'd go home and I'd play that baby. That made me happy. That still makes me happy."
The blues came by way of Jimi Hendrix. Brown was 22 years old. He was living in Milwaukee, where he had family, and had moved to continue his studies -- now as a history major -- at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "I got ahold of a couple records of [Hendrix's] and read his biography, and I just was intrigued by it," he says. "There was a lot of stuff like 'Burning [of] the Midnight Lamp' a lot of different types of songs. Even then I was intuitive enough to know that this was the blues. I didn't know much about the blues, but I could tell, just being musically inclined, that what he was playing was very much blues-based. So that was how the journey started. I just started trying to find books on this thing called the blues. I haunted libraries, rented videos, listened to cassettes . And that's what I did for years and years."
Brown first played the BamBoo Room in April, a month after the club opened in Lake Worth's historic Paradise Building. His brand of solo acoustic blues went over well with the BamBoo Room's generally thoughtful and gracious clientele. Brown had been playing Delta blues music professionally only since the summer of 1995. Nonetheless he had come a long way quick, highlighting the journey by winning the Beale Street Blues Society's 1997 National Talent Competition and placing second in the international competition. On his first of three tours of France, he recorded a fine 15-song live disc for Roadway Records called Walking on Muddy Waters: Mississippi Blues in the Garonne Country. Beyond that he had played a smattering of geographically far-flung blues festivals and a host of dates in and around Memphis. (Brown relocated to Memphis from Milwaukee more than a decade ago.) Disregarding Brown's relative lack of experience, BamBoo Room's husband-and-wife co-owners, Russell Hibbard and Karen McKinley, offered Brown a gig as their first artist in residence soon after Brown appeared at their club a second time in July.
A month later Brown and his two children packed up their belongings and moved from the great blues town of Memphis into a house in Lake Worth. Four nights a week, Brown sets up shop on the stage of the BamBoo Room. He's augmented his solo act lately with the addition of an acoustic bassist and a harmonica player. The trio plays a few of Brown's originals -- songs that range from standard blues shuffles to some of his newer folk-pop material -- but mostly they play the music of old Delta masters like Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson.
"I think the blues is still relevant," Brown says. "That's why so many people like it. It always sticks around; it never goes anywhere. People have the same problems on different levels that they had 50 and 100 years ago . The universality is the main deal about it. People can relate."
Contact David Pulizzi at his e-mail address:
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