Back To The Swamp
When the Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney wrapped up their tour in support of 2019’s Let’s Rock they headed for Auerbach’s Easy Eye studio in Nashville to kick back, and the result is this wonderful ‘swampy blues’ 11-song cover album Delta Kream (14 May 2021; Nonesuch Records).
It helped that the duo, who have always loved blues heroes Junior Kimbrough - see, for example, their tribute on the 2006 EP Chulahoma - and R.L. Burnside, were holed up with Kimbrough’s former bassist Eric Deaton and Burnside’s guitarist Kenny Brown. Together they returned to their musical roots over a two-day, 10-hour session, which flowed easily for the duo, who famously said they never wanted to be rock stars. “It may be The Black Keys’ most authentic record,” says Carney. “We were just recording with these dudes who played with our heroes. It was literally the easiest record we’ve ever made. There was no discussion. It just came out.”
Auerbach first visited Mississippi when he was still a teenager, and played at Kimbrough’s Junior’s Juke Joint club in Chulahoma. It is there that he reportedly became hooked on ‘mesmerising cycling song structures, with few chord changes and an emphasis on the groove’, which the band have sought to recapture on this album. Both Burnside and Kimborough are now long gone, but their spirit and their energy is alive and well in this warm tribute to the two bluesmen.
The album kicks off with Crawling Kingsnake, which fans may recognize from versions by John Lee Hooker, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Doors. It was originally sung in almost a country style, and the slide guitar on this cover still nods a little in that direction, as Auerbach emphasizes: “Kenny’s got his slide laying across all six strings, and I’m like, ‘That’s it! That’s the sound from those Junior Kimbrough records!’ The music video for Crawling Kingsnake, directed by Tim Hardiman and partly shot at Jimmy Duck Holmes’ Blue Front Café in Mississippi, seems to feature the Black Keys’ guitarist on his Fender Telecaster.
Burnside’s Poor Boy A Long Way From Home, is the next standout track that exemplifies the Mississippi blues sound. It is said that here Auerbach’s solo is played on his red Gibson Trini Lopez, but either way his guitar work again combines beautifully with Brown’s masterful control of slide.
Next up is a cover of Kimbrough’s Stay All Night, which with a bit of imagination, can make you feel like you are knocking one back at the blues legend’s Juke Joint barhouse. “That song, the whole feeling, takes me back to the first time I saw Deep Blues,” recalls Carney. “That documentary changed my life.”
The cover of Burnside’s Going Down South is another great cut, both for its use of slide and Deaton’s powerful rhythmic bassline. Kimbrough’s influence returns on Do The Romp, on which the musicians’ chuckle at the end reinforces the relaxed atmosphere in which the whole album was produced.
Sad Days, Lonely Nights finds us back in late night Tom Waits’ territory, with Auerbach appropriately sounding like he might be three sheets to the wind as he sings “My mamma told me, When I was a child, She said, ‘Son, Gonna have hard days’.”
Delta Kream concludes with another Kimbrough number, the atmospheric Come On And Go With Me, which features more great slide from Brown, who the duo show great respect for. “We grew up learning to play like these guys,” explains Carney, as he reflects on the band’s return to their roots. “That’s why we keep coming back to this music. It’s the reason why the band even exists. We did this album to remind people of what inspired us.”