Elliott Sharp is best known for his complex, hard-edged compositions and his equally intense guitar playing. But Sharp wavers between mathematical expressionism and a Hubert Sumlin-inspired blues, and both sides were presented on a night at the new East Village gallery Issue Project Room. He introduced the evening by saying that he would perform one acoustic set and one "invoking the gods of silicon."
His fractals and electronics are well documented and generally satisfying. A more recent surprise has been his emergence as a serious blues player. Not referential blues, not ironic or post-modern or flashy or British blues, but the real deal, the lowdown, dirty, who's-your-daddy kind of blues. He is, of course, a
virtuoso, so he's not just doing the I-IV-V, but hammering and finger
picking and taking apart and reassembling the real folk blues. Most of his blues work, however, has been with his lackluster Terraplane band. As a solo acoustic player, he lacked nothing.
Rather than merely reviving the past, Sharp plays his own, nonlinear blues. He knows the old vocabulary, but tells new stories. He is among a very few pushing the blues formula forward (or away) and along with Haino Keiji and Loren Connors, is one of the great blues players of the turn of the century, this century. (I'd further offer as a footnote and a footbridge John Lee Hooker's out-of-print double disc "Alone" as a link from the so-called blues to the so-called experimental improv). Of the three, Sharp is certainly the most entrenched in tradition (which is to say people might call me a fool, but only about the other two).
Here's what E# does: he sidesteps the AAAABBAACBAA. He does a reverse pirouette over the 12-bar, bypasses the thistle and gets down to the bone. He not only tears it up, he deals with the pieces. He sweeps the floor and paints the wall besides.
Personally, I hold Muddy Waters responsible for putting the blues on life support. Muddy's Big Beat was so compelling that 20 dozen Robert Crays and a few King brothers all grasped on to the pounding sound. But the blues gots to breathe, it gots to stretch and live. (Or, put more kindly, in a paraphrase borrowed from Muhal Richard Abrams, if you don't have any ideas to push the music forward, then by all means keep the past alive.)
And here's a short list of people who believed the blues should move forward, and not just sit on its ass (to keep the peace, Mr. Morganfield can share the top spot with the venerables Hooker and Sumlin): Lightnin' Hopkins, Charley Patton, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and the Mississippis Fred McDowell and John Hurt. Add Sharp to the list. It's a shame only the avant improv crowd is listening.
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