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The Daily Tar Heel

Blues Guitarist Rocks Live; Voice Fails Lewis

R.L. Burnside
Burnside on Burnside

A series of notes coaxed from a solitary slide guitar are enough to grab hold of new fans for R.L. Burnside's old style of music.

The first strains of blues and boogie immediately draw the listener to the lively sounds of Burnside on Burnside, the revered guitarist's first major live album. These sounds haven't been heard in the polished, restrained blues that have become popular over the years. This is music of the past that still sounds new and vital with its raw, stripped-down and propulsive nature.

The band maintains a forceful, driving rhythm even without the use of a bass guitar. Burnside, his grandson Cedric Burnside on drums and his adopted son, Kenny Brown, on slide guitar are able to keep things tight without it.

At the center of the affair, of course, is R.L. After all, he embodies the music he's played for nearly 50 years. He survived tough times and bad luck, knew all the women he sings about and lived the Mississippi-hill-country blues for much longer than today's music lovers have been paying attention.

R.L.'s blues are enhanced by his strong voice and the wonderful music he extracts from just one chord. Every now and then, he adds a joke or interlude for effect before the band launches another sublime piece of blues heaven.

None of the songs, most of which were recorded live at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore., let go of the listener. From the marchlike tempo of "Shake 'Em On Down" to the closing rowdiness of "Snake Drive," the set maintains a pure, enthralling energy.

Luckily for anyone who gives his music a listen, this energy has not diffused with age.

Burnside might be just shy of his 75th birthday, but his live album is evidence that he has more than enough life left in him to grab and shake new listeners with his potent brand of primitive blues.

By Elliott Dube

David Lewis
For Now
2 Stars

For Now could be a much different album if David Lewis' voice was less suited to a children's sing-along and more allied with his impressive lyrics and carefully arranged instrumentals.

Lewis' eternally placid singing effectively subverts his lyrical power, making the folk singer/songwriter's second LP fall victim to a plague of songs the listener cannot take seriously.

In the oddly rollicking "The Rain Stops Everything," one can hear Lewis sweetly smiling through his lines about heartbreak. When he sings "My heart is leaking right through these chains," it's full of sugar and high-pitch.

Regardless of his lyrics' penchant for melancholy, Lewis continually lisps along in upbeat, bouncy tones. The album, by merit of this continual cheerfulness, occasionally approaches the trite.

And gentle but multi-faceted instrumentals often dwarf Lewis' effeminate vocals, further proving that the vocalist is indeed the weakest link. Only "Old Dreams Fade Away," in which Lewis sings the first verse a cappella, flatters the singer.

Unfortunately, Lewis more often misses than hits. Especially difficult for the listener is the cover of Nick Drake's "Northern Sky." The instrumentals are incredibly fluid and lilt perfectly in the Drake tradition. But he can't hold a candle to Drake, and Lewis tries to emulate him repeatedly -- Lewis' voice just does not have that "Pink Moon" allure of Drake's.

But there is no doubt that Lewis possesses definite lyrical prowess despite being vocally challenged. Some particularly poignant moments on the album are preserved through the simple power of the words that Lewis uses.

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On "You Don't Know," even Lewis' voice can't dilute the insight of lines like "I was born the day you kissed me/I lived a while in between/And I died the day you left me/In a place where sadness goes unseen." It's a complicated sentiment expressed simply and is one of the album's highlights.

Too bad an album can't be all about the words. Lewis ultimately couldn't establish the balance between singing and songwriting.

By Michelle Jarboe