The punk rock hangout All Asia in Cambridge is not an outpost for most staid blues musicians, though I AM here to see a blues band called the Ten Foot Polecats.
Blues yes; staid no.
With Jim Chilson on guitar, Jay Scheffler on vocals and harp, and Dave Darling on drums, the Ten Foot Polecats are local Yankee boys whose hearts and minds have wandered off to the Delta in search of the raw and primitive. Influenced by such artists as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford as well as bands such as Black Flag, Bad Brains and the Cramps, they are forging a new alliance between punk and blues. They are gritty, high energy - and though some might call this “trance blues” - you will definitely not go into a coma.
The band has recently performed at the Deep Blues Festival in Minneapolis where they played on the same bill as T-Model Ford and many others. Chilson, the impromptu spokesman for the Polecats cites such other bands as the Black Diamond Heavies and Left Lane Cruiser as other new bands they admire who are keeping the blues alive by creating a new sound based on raw gutbucket blues.
“What is really great is that there seems to be a lot of other acts across the country latching onto this music as well, especially in the punk-blues genre,” he said. “So I think we are all trying to carry on the tradition, along with taking it to different places with other musical influences added into the sound. Right now it is really starting to gain some momentum. Nationally known acts as The Black Keys are heavily influenced by it (especially Junior Kimbrough), as well as The North Mississippi Allstars and Juke Joint Duo (Lightning Malcolm & Cedric Burnside.) ”
A couple of things struck me when I had seen the band for the first time a couple of weeks before.
The first was Scheffler’s menacingly textured vocals. I’m not talking about some kind of cookie monster clownishness, but something that really sends chills up your spine. After hearing that voice and seeing him swagger onstage I initially imagined that he could have been one of Jack Nicholson’s henchmen from South Boston. Though Jay will modestly deny the similarity, the first thought that came to my mind was Howling Wolf - if not Captain Beefheart. The second thing was Chilson’s hyperkinetic guitar riffs. His hands do an amazing dance on the frets. He strums flamenco fast and his hands become a blur while interspersing delta blues licks on one chord vamps. Tying everything together was Darling’s perfectly primal nonstop thumping.
They formed two years ago as a breakaway band from the blues rock Hoodoo Revelator. Chilson and Darling have known each other for 34 years and had been in Hoodoo revelator. The two met Jay when he answered an ad to do North Mississippi hill country blues.
“Some people warned us that we would be paring down our audience and fans because we would be doing more traditional blues, and that the blues was dying out. However, we didn’t care about that as we wanted to pursue music we really wanted to do. We felt that if the music is heartfelt and played with emotion it will stand out, and basically that is what occurred. Our audience-fan base has grown and has included younger audiences and fans of other genres such as psychobilly, Punk-a-billy, Trash (alt) country, punk, and of course, blues. Yes we do play some traditional songs but we don’t do it in a traditional way.”
Aside from the blues label, they oxymoronically describe themselves as both “jam band” and “punk.” Having lived through punk the first time around, I was intrigued by how they would reconcile the two terminologies.
“The common thread with all these North Mississippi Hill Country blues artists, punk artists and some country artists like Hasil Adkins, (not Kenny Chesney!) is their reckless and unhinged approach to performance and the lack of concern for technical perfection. They would rather put everything into their performance at that moment instead of calculating certain parts and constructing particular endings that are the same every night. In our eyes, and probably in their eyes too, the unhinged approach was far more exciting and more revealing. It may become sloppy at some times or may create a train wreck ending, but, that’s the beauty of it - you never know what’s going to happen….
Jay (Schleffer) does have a background in punk music, but basically in this case the music is not punk in content, but, it is punk in its aggressive approach. We have gotten some crossover with the punk/punk-a-billy/psychobilly audiences, and that is probably due to how we approach the music. That is why we tend to call it ‘Deep Punk Blues.’ Blues as this is what it is to the core. Deep because of how soulful it is. When you hear Junior Kimbrough or “Possessed” by Paul James or Porkchop Holder; you're hearing the essence of who these guys are. Deep refers to where the music comes from, deep in the soul of the artist, and punk because of how we approach most of it - aggressive and unhinged. ”
They are giving away copies of their 2008 demo release Sterno Soup, which takes its title from the Tommy Johnson song “Canned Heat Blues,” and is reviewed here by Georgetown Fats. They are also working on an as yet unnamed recording of mainly originals due out this fall. Though they’ve been as far as Memphis, they’ve not yet been to Mississippi, that place which figures so prominently in their music. I asked them about their songwriting process. Would they stick to standard blues themes that are handed down in recordings from a more remote time and place, or could they see themselves writing about current local events?
“Even though Jay has written all the songs to this point, I don’t think we really think about a format, whatever comes out comes out, no matter which one of us writes it,” Chilson said. “So we will write anything that comes to mind that is heartfelt and emotional even if it is about love, heartache, or whiskey drinking. (But I-93 and I-95 traffic and baseball sometimes create heartache so we will see.)”
Tonight the set starts out apace with Robert Johnson’s “Dead Shrimp Blues.” Later, we hear R.L. Burnside’s “See what my buddy done.” By the time we get to Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” Jay’s vocals are in high gear and he whoops it up with some falsetto vocals and harmonica.
They end with “Chicken Head Man,” a song which pretty much sums up everything I love about this band. No drippy introspective sentimentality a la Sting. No predictable 12-bar chord changes - or for that matter any chord changes at all. Just raw, energetic blues. Schleffer wails over a hypnotic riff like some kind of psychotic mantra:
“I love chicken heads…”
“When you kill a chicken”
“Save the chicken heads…”
“I love chicken heads… “
Here is what they say about their local and national success so far:
“We were not sure how this would go over in these parts as this type of music seems to be more accepted down south and in the Midwest, and for some reason in the Northwest, but a lot of people have taken to it which means a lot to us because it’s so close to our hearts.”
And what will happen if they ever get to Mississippi? Stay tuned.