On ‘Delta Kream,’ the Black Keys Pay Tribute to Hill Country Bluesmen
Rock ‘n’ roll began as a heavily blues-derived sound, and all the disparate offshoots and subgenres that we have come to place under the “rock” banner remain indebted, in varying degrees, to the blues. Still, the vestiges of the sound that birthed the majority of American popular music have grown increasingly tenuous, making the blues largely the domain of revivalists. Among the few contemporary artists who have achieved both critical acclaim and broad appeal while daring to place the blues front and center is the Black Keys. The duo of guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have explored numerous variations of blues-rock, taking the rootsy templates of their early work into psychedelic territory, and eventually rebounding with 2019’s back-to-basics “Let’s Rock.” On their latest effort, “Delta Kream,” they have gone further back to their roots than ever before, with a set of covers from legendary hill country bluesmen like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. Such an undertaking should come as no surprise, as the band covered these same two artists in the first two tracks of their 2002 debut, “The Big Come Up,” and tried their hand at seven Kimbrough songs on their tribute 2006 EP “Chulahoma.” This album finds the Black Keys joining forces with slide guitarist Kenny Brown and bassist Eric Deaton, who played with Kimbrough and Burnside respectively. Recorded in a two-day stretch between legs of their “Let’s Rock” tour, “Delta Kream” rings with fresh spontaneity and reaffirms the Keys’ mastery of their craft.
The album opens with the band checking their sound, asking “Ready?” and promptly breaking into a driving blues riff. The nature of the undertaking is immediately made clear — a casual, no frills jam session in which the Keys run rampant with their source material, faithfully allowing the spirit of the blues to guide their free excursions. Auerbach dons a smoky voice as the band fixate on an archetypal blues guitar figure and let loose. Their take on “Crawling Kingsnake” is considerably removed from John Lee Hooker’s original, perhaps a bit closer to the Doors’ rendition, although any resemblances to either are quite removed. The band flesh Hooker’s barebones stomp into a dynamic full band reworking, and condense his serpentine vocal melody into easily hummable phrasing. They immediately demonstrate an effortless mastery of the blues lexicon that allows them to preserve the grit at the core of the tune. On “Louise,” they do it all over again, streamlining the effort with an even more caricatural central riff. While Big Bill Broonzy’s original relied on piano and guitar for all its percussive force, the Black Keys’ version features especially prominent drums, takes the song as a starting point, and lingers on the feeling with a wide-grinning enthusiasm that you can hear in the indulgent, twangy ringing notes.
The sequencing of tracks works in the album’s favor, effectively reeling you in. By the point of “Poor Boy a Long Way From Home,” the band have really tapped into a groove, establishing parameters through historical references, and settling with increasing comfort in this space. Auerbach does justice to Hooker’s original, with his voice full of vigorous potency, and the band behind him in full force, with every element employed to maximum efficacy. “Stay All Night” is a refreshing take on the Junior Kimbrough tune, with a slightly slower pace and mellower vocals from Auerbach, which preserve the spirit of the original, while giving it a new glaze.
Several Kimbrough songs are tackled on the album, with the band taking different approaches to reviving the material and always managing to sound spirited. “Do the Romp” sounds like the original on steroids, with a thrilling sludge of guitars scraping and sputtering together in delirious revelry. Auerbach hums and mutters with a befitting abandon, and when the tempo slows as the song winds down in the end, one gets the sense that the band has successfully expelled their demons, letting out a cathartic sigh. “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” is one of the more faithful covers in the set, sounding as if the Keys have simply taken the original and moved on a bit, fashioning it crisper and more immediate, with some vaguely kaleidoscopic guitar amusements thrown in. Ray Jacildo’s organ is a key addition to certain tracks, especially “Mellow Peaches,” another Kimbrough cut, revamped with a new liveliness and guitars that venture into vaguely eastern territory, putting a new spin on the blues machinery that drives the music.
The band’s take on R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” is curiously compelling. While Burnside’s tune had a deranged, stammering quality, the Black Keys frame it in a steady groove that one might expect to compromise rawness. However, Auerbach sings in a rather awkward falsetto that somehow preserves the quirk of Burnside’s original, while disinfecting it with a new, cool composure, and balancing the mix with plenty of gnawing, devilish guitars. On “Coal Black Mattie,” the Keys pick up the pace and absolutely nails it. Again, Auerbach’s vocals come across smoother than Rainy Burnette’s, but the raucous instrumentation fills the gaps neatly, to the effect that the song preserves the gritty feel. Overdriven guitars and a rockier sound overall mark a return to more familiar Black Keys territory, while keeping Hill Country signifiers at close reach. Some especially fiery guitar lines over an insistent stomp make for a primal, intoxicating experience.
There are moments when the Keys can sound a bit like they are playing the same song over and over again. Granted, this can hardly be avoided within the rather restrictive confines of the blues format. Still, the shuffling and repetition of the same old tricks can grow slightly tiresome, as perhaps best exemplified on “Walk With Me,” which finds the band perfunctorily running through routine. It just takes a little variation to keep things exciting, however, and the band generally fare well in this respect. The relatively slow and spacious closer “Come and Go With Me” brings a well-timed change of pace, letting the spirit that has fueled so much frenzy throughout the record sink in comfortably, panning out from the scene with an elegant, conclusive energy.
Patrick Carney has described “Delta Kream” as “literally the easiest record we’ve ever made,” and you can hear this ease in the recording. That isn’t to say that this is a halfhearted effort, by any means, Rather, it’s a testament to the Black Keys’ mastery of their art form that they are able to flesh out a set of blues classics with such effortless fluidity. You can hear how much fun Auerbach and Carney are having as they excavate these old tunes and spin them into new creations. The songs abound with authenticity, and the band is able to preserve the grit of the original tunes while grounding them in slightly more accessible frameworks and beefing them up with rockier arrangements. While the unfettered rehashing of blues cliches can be a bit much, at times giving the music a rather farcical quality, it is a practical necessity, as the only way to successfully preserve a sound is to liberally employ its recognizable signifiers. Fortunately, the Keys are well-versed in tradition, making for a fun-loving and impressively authentic tribute.
‘Delta Kream’ releases May 14 on Apple Music.