Memento Mori

Posted November 15, 2007 in Music

It is difficult not to view the blues as an almost entirely historic idiom. Since being largely abandoned by the majority of African-Americans who created it, the blues, as a musical force, is essentially dead and gone. In a weird cultural shift, the style now largely exists as a plaything for ape-ing white men, a fetishistic artifact where the re-constituted form itself generally trumps any attempt at expression, and the purveyors invariably wind up drowning in an ocean of self-imposed cliché, a derivative exercise in ofay futility.

Los Angeles singer-guitarist Jake La Botz is the exception that proves the rule. His is an impeccable pedigree—a criminal youth spent on the streets of Chicago, and a subsequent, self-propelled rescue by music, a move later enhanced by a crucial alliance with mentor Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards, the 1930s-era protégé of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Access to the kind of knowledge Honeyboy possesses is at a premium, and while La Botz did not squander the opportunity, neither did he allow himself to hobbled by adherence to an established framework. For La Botz, the blues are a launching pad, one from which he’s sent up innumerable probes and rovers, each charting not only previously untouched corners of the blues firmament but also the deepest, most shadowy regions of La Botz’ own soul.

Get an earful of his current Graveyard Jones CD (Charnel Ground Records). Put over with layers of atmospheric throbbing rhythms and unconventional for the blues instrumentation (a ghostly steel, a mournful fiddle, shards of banjo drift in and out of the tracks), La Botz’s offbeat artistic vision is emphatically fulfilled on each title. The songs are at once ethereal and visceral, blending shadowy hypno-Delta mystery and an almost psychedelic-ized sense of enlightenment. Through La Botz’s remarkable employ of image and metaphor, always put over with a bruised resignation and the spiritual seekers restless drive, he achieves a singular, blues-based, rock-informed sound that is his alone. Perhaps as close to the street singer tradition of idiom splicing that Robert Johnson practiced (where he’d perform pop, Jimmie Rodgers and blues songs), La Botz’s freethinking version of 21st century blues is an engrossing, idiosyncratic and impressive update.

The themes are often grim—death frequently seems foremost among them—and La Botz’s liberated, almost stream of consciousness writing style frames them with evocative grace. Songs like “Heaven is the Only Hell” and “Sadness is the Only Grave” reach into a strange, beckoning and ruggedly individualistic territory that at times scarcely resemble the known blues at all: it’s La Botz’s own bag, and in it he totes a capacious store of severely idiosyncratic yet uniformly arresting statements. Sculpted from some strange musical quintessence, La Botz redefines the blues even as propels established rock & roll beyond its recognizable shape, consistently exhibiting an organic mastery and eerie grasp on the artistic moment.

This type of unorthodox command also typifies his professional methodology. As a recent Macon Telegraph reviewer astutely observed “La Botz avoids the mainstream like Dracula avoids the dawn,” and while La Botz is resolutely unconventional, he is also an equally shrewd road warrior. He’s fresh off his second “Tattoo Across America” tour, an annual jaunt that has him setting up and performing in a series of tattoo parlors in thirteen states from coast to coast. Part novelty kick, part hardcore aficionado (La Botz himself is heavily tattooed) such an unusual circuit guarantees intimate settings and a built-in crowd of oddball, self-styled outsiders—precisely La Botz’ natural target audience, and while the insular nature of the itinerary seems as if it would ensure a modest at best success, the exposure it’s brought him reaches a surprising scope. The guy just finished shooting a role in Sylvester Stallone’s forthcoming John Rambo (that’s right, it’s part four) and after Stallone heard Graveyard Jones, he requested La Botz (playing a character appropriately named ‘Tombstone’) perform two songs in the film.

Whether by fate or design, La Botz’s strange, blues-fueled solo odyssey has taken him to greater artistic and perhaps commercial heights than most of his colleagues dream of. The protocol may be unusual, but one can’t argue with the results

Jake La Botz performing at The Press, 129 Harvard Ave., Claremont, (909) 625-4808, November 17, doors at 10pm


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