Sutro Park

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RL Boyce
Ain't the Man's Alright
Sutro Park
LP
$15

RL Boyce was born on August 15, 1955, in Como, Mississippi, where he still resides.  It is a community with enduring blues, fife-and-drum, and gospel traditions.  Boyce picked up music as a teenager, starting out singing in the church choir and playing percussion in fife-and-drum bands.  Regarding his evolution on the drums, he says, “I learned from a foot tub.  Back then we didn’t have a bathtub – a foot tub is what you bathed in, what you had your water in.”  His earliest issued recording [“Late at Midnight, Just a Little Before Day,” on Traveling Through the Jungle: Negro Fife and Drum Band Music from the Deep South] was made on his 15th birthday, accompanying his uncle Otha Turner. Boyce later adjusted that percussion style to a blues context on a more expanded drum kit, as heard on Jessie Mae Hemphill’s classic Feelin’ Good album. His singular, bursting-at-the-seams drumming on the first side of that record is a benchmark of loose-limbed groove.  

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that such a vibrant musician would want to branch out from solely being a sideman to establish himself as a solo artist and leader of his own groups.  Inspired by his neighbors Mississippi Fred McDowell and RL Burnside, he took up the guitar: “Oh man, I loved it.  I always wanted to do what they did, so I got along with it.”  He was coached by a couple local musicians including Joe Townsend (whose sole 45 for Designer Records is spellbinding, live-in-the-church gospel blues [It is unclear who plays guitar on Townsend’s 45.  Bengt Olsson’s research states it was Johnnie Mays, while Boyce has consistently asserted that it sounds like Townsend accompanied himself.  Of course, it is also possible that both guitarists shared a similar approach.]) and over time he developed an individual style that draws upon songs from the local repertoire and interprets them with considerable enthusiasm and spontaneity.

RL comes from a stream of the folk tradition that is less concerned with “getting it right” than getting it going, and with developing a distinct, individual sound. While regionally popular tunes and lyrics often serve as the bedrock of Boyce’s material, he takes them to places that no one else would, often peppering them with lyrics he makes up on the spot, as well as shout outs to his collaborators, his longtime companion Sheila Birge and their daughter Shanquisha, and anyone else who might happen to be in the vicinity. At other times, his songs are fully improvised.  As Boyce puts it, “Most of it, when somethin’ hits my mind, I just start.  You know, like if I’m around you and I think about you a lot, I could sit at home in the yard, if you hit my mind, I play one right there, right then.  I’m playin’ this for Adam, a friend of mine in New York.  It’d hit me like that and I’d just go right on.  I don’t do no rehearsin’ with nobody.  I don’t do nothin’ like that.  Whatever hits me, I jump in on it.”  If he is in one of these more talkative moods, his stream of consciousness delivery is reminiscent of Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and even the jokester side of Furry Lewis.  When he really gets going, there is a deeply infectious sense of release, and of letting loose.  At such times, laughter comes easy and often from RL and those around him.

Although Boyce occasionally takes gigs in faraway locales, most of the time he seems content to play at clubs and parties closer to home, often in his own front yard.  His music developed within this informal environment where he plays largely for friends and family, which is perhaps one reason why his songs have such an open-ended, spontaneous, freewheeling quality.  His performances are very social and he welcomes an unpredictable, interactive relationship with his fellow performers as well as the audience.  Other musicians may be invited to join in, but they shouldn’t expect much guidance.  An inquiry regarding what key Boyce is playing in will likely elicit an instruction along the lines of “follow me.”  This is not always a straightforward task.  They need to be ready to respond to sudden shifts, make adjustments on the fly, or play for hours while making subtle variations on a few grooves.

This record, Boyce’s long-awaited full-length debut, includes a rotating cast of collaborators who are accustomed to operating in this framework while also adding their personalities to the proceedings.  In his earlier years, Luther Dickinson played extensively with RL [Most notably on Otha Turner’s Everybody Hollerin’ Goat, which Dickinson produced], and here both men take a clear delight in renewing their partnership, at times calling to mind the sparks that flew when Mississippi Fred McDowell and Eli Green performed together. Guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm and RL sit in on one another’s sets quite often, each seemingly with an open invitation to join the other (As documented on the M for Mississippi film and soundtrack).  And it is always a treat to hear drummer Calvin Jackson’s instantly recognizable rolling and tumbling style, sometimes done in tandem with his son, Cedric Burnside, on a second drum kit.  Like all the other participants, they sound as if they’re having a ball.  

Though RL is now one of the elders among the traditional musicians in Como, his songs still retain the quality of when he was an exuberant youngster who was thrilled to be learning to play music with his role models. Hear a couple clips:  Gonna Boogie & Going Away

Here's a brief, informal video that I shot of RL while in Mississippi in early July 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YaB1oXj3xg.  There is also a 2001 interview with RL and his dearly departed buddy Jessie "Chip" Daniels here: http://www.50milesofelbowroom.com/articles/301-rl-boyce-a-jessie-qchipq-daniels.html