Whether it's a neighborhood bar band or any of the supposed guitar prodigies that are being pushed on the public these days, white musicians have so bastardized the blues over the years that many of today's best and brightest young artists shy away from the term. It's hard to blame them when most of the bands passing themselves off as the blues these days are so sanitized that they've left out the genre's most important ingredient: soul. A handful of young, urban and predominantly white bands are proving they can get it right. The Black Keys (a soulful stomp duo out of Akron, Ohio), the North Mississippi Allstars (a rootsy collective from Memphis) and Mr. Airplane Man (two Boston women who were so enamored of Howlin' Wolf that they named their band after one of his songs) are among a growing cluster of acts that like their blues primitive and a little rough around the edges. They take cues from Son House, not Eric Clapton. Their inspiration is Junior Kimbrough, not Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"Ninety-nine percent of blues is just horrible," said Black Keys guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach. "I'm totally embarrassed by it, so it's hard for us to even say to people, 'Oh, we play the blues,' because God knows what they're thinking. We just say we play rock 'n' roll."
No artist likes to be pigeonholed, but rock is a much more forgiving term. It's much broader, allowing for influences as varied as punk, R&B, country, folk, hip-hop -- all of which can also be heard in these bands' songs, whether it's the Motown leanings of the Black Keys' "I'll Be Your Man" or the sassy punk inflections of Mr. Airplane Man's "Like That."
"All music goes sour after a while if it's not reinvented," said Auerbach. The new blues movement might not exist if it weren't for Fat Possum Records, the tiny Oxford, Miss., label that's as much a public service as a commercial enterprise. Over the last decade, it's been keeping Mississippi Delta blues alive, releasing records by R.L. Burnside, T Model Ford and other aging legends -- and in the process bringing the music to a new audience that is predominantly young and urban. Many credit the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for this when, in the mid-'90s, the New York City funk-and-punk blues trio folded Burnside into their songs.
"It helped the whole scene. When you get that cross-cultural, cross-racial collision, that is powerful," said Luther Dickinson, son of legendary producer Jim Dickinson and front man for the North Mississippi Allstars.
It's ironic that it took a New York group to introduce Dickinson and his bandmate brother, Cody, to the music when "right in my backyard was Junior Kimbrough's juke joint. R.L. Burnside and his whole family. Otha Turner and his whole family," said Dickinson, who now lives in Memphis.
But once he and his brother were turned on to the simple, repetitive rhythms of the hill country blues, the Allstars were hooked. The group's first record, 2001's critically acclaimed "Shake Hands With Shorty" (Artemis), is made up entirely of covers, most of them penned by Fat Possum artists like Burnside and Fred McDowell.
The Black Keys' Auerbach had a similar experience. After hearing the bare-bones rhythms of T Model Ford, he became such a fan that he made a pilgrimage from Akron to Oxford to find him in 1999. It took him a day to track Ford down, but when he did, the seventysomething blues man was more than gracious. He played with Auerbach all afternoon, then invited him to play some more at a juke joint later that night.
Like Ford, who performs with only one other musician (his drummer, Spam), the Black Keys are also a duo. It's just Auerbach on guitar and Patrick Carney on drums. The two, who have been playing together since high school, tried to incorporate a bass player when recording their first record, "The Big Come Up" (Alive), earlier this year, but it didn't work out.
Mr. Airplane Man, also a guitar-and-drums two-piece, tried the same thing, but "we couldn't find anybody who got it," said drummer Tara McManus. "The Blues Explosion was an influence in realizing you didn't have to have a bass. T Model Ford is just a guitar and drums. It really made us both realize that we don't have to feel held back because we can't find someone to play with."
BUT for the North Mississippi Allstars, their sound didn't come together until they added bass player Chris Chew, who grew up playing in church and "brings this uplifting, Southern Baptist feeling" to the music, Dickinson said. "My brother and I grew up playing together our whole life. Rock 'n' roll is about playing with other people."
The Allstars have played and recorded with a variety of artists, including the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Judah Bauer, whose side project, 20 Miles, was among the first of this new wave of blues bands. Now they're springing up all over the country, most notably in Memphis and in Detroit, where the blues-influenced White Stripes jump-started a rock revival.
"When young white kids play black music," said Dickinson, "it turns into rock 'n' roll. That's what rock 'n' roll is."
Best new blues
The Black Keys: "The Big Come Up" (Alive)
Mr. Airplane Man: "Moanin' " (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
North Mississippi Allstars: "51 Phantom" (Artemis)
20 Miles: "Keep It Coming" (Fat Possum)
White Stripes: "White Blood Cells" (V2)