Black Blues, White Label

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Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum says that Come on In has generated more negative mail than any other release on the label. Most of the outrage is directed at Tom Rothrock's altering and remixing of Burnside's basic tracks: How dare Fat Possum dilute the purity (that "P" word again) of Burnside's sound? It sounds like another take on the Mississippi bluesman as a noble savage whose undiminished and undiluted style must be protected from the greedy and misguided white entrepreneurs who want to "change his sound." But if interviews and Fat Possum press releases can be believed, it was R.L. who approached Rothrock to mix his material after he heard some of the producer's Beck remixes. So if it was Burnside's idea to make this release just what it is, then isn't it rather pointless to shout charges of exploitation at Matthew Johnson and Fat Possum for allowing Rothrock to put a trip-hop/techno stamp on the recording?

It is interesting to note that Rothrock and Beal Dabbs share songwriting credits on several songs with Burnside on this record. Is that just another example of white men stealing writer credits from a black artist, or is it true collaboration in the studio, even if R.L. cut the basic tracks by himself or with his band? You'd probably have to ask Burnside to find out the truth, but this looks and feels more like a collaborative project. The Rothrock touches seem to be part of the whole rather than add-ons after the fact. There is only one true remix on the record: "Heat," done by Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. Rothrock functions as another band member on most tracks with his programming and mixing. There are even a couple of Rothrock-produced tracks that have no traces of samples or loops, in case any blues purists need reassuring that R.L. can still do it all on his own.

So R.L. Burnside's new record features the work of a white producer who's "hot" at the moment. Does that mean that his new record is somehow inferior? Is there some point at which artists like Burnside, records like Come on In, and potential fans can shed the accompanying racial and cultural double binds and simply enjoy the music for the way it sounds? It's not likely, but you can't help but hope so, because R.L.'s boogie is a pleasure with or without remixes.

R.L. Burnside will be performing Saturday, January 16 at 8:00 at the Chili Pepper (Streets of Mayfair), 3339 Virginia St, Coconut Grove. Robert Cage is the opening act. Tickets are $12. Call 305-442-2228

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Ross Johnson

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