“There are a lot of people that play the blues with too much reverence. And that’s the reason that most blues sucks,” says Scissormen frontman (and Phoenix contributor) Ted Drozdowski. “I think it’s your responsibility to kick the music’s ass.” That’s not to say there isn’t a fine line between reverence and respect, of course. “You have to respect it. Just like you have to respect a tiger if you run across one in the jungle.”
SLIDE SHOW: At Bonnaroo, Ted played guitar with a Frisbee and a folding chair.
Drozdowski was struck recently by the reaction of young fans after Scissormen’s set at this year’s Bonnaroo. “They’d come up and say stuff like, ‘We really like you guys, but we never listen to blues. We thought the blues was boring.’ ”
In Scissormen’s hands, it’s anything but. No 4/4 Chicago shuffles or straight-ahead Texas blues here. Instead, the nine Delta-mud-caked originals and two covers — Son House’s “Death Letter” and “John the Revelator” — on Scissormen’s new CD, Luck in a Hurry (Barking Koala/Vizztone), are hurtling, bone-shaking, sulfur-smoking firebombs.
There are moments of respite. “When the Devil Calls” is pure front-porch solo-acoustic moan. And the mellow “Mattie Sweet Mattie” — in what Drozdowski says is a nod to the Memphis Jug Band of the ’20s and ’30s — is adorned with wobbly piano trills and quavering violin. But by and large, he tells me, the mandate was simple: “Make it noisy.”
Drozdowski — who, along with whatever drummer happens to be in shouting distance, is Scissormen — was a long-time East Boston resident, but he relocated to Nashville last year. Part of that was a desire to “move to a place that was a little bit more laid back than Boston.” Part of it was practical, a geographical repositioning that would make it easier to gig in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Atlanta.
Best of all, he says, “I’m closer to Mississippi than I was before. Just being near the Delta — this music, in a certain way, is connected to the earth, and the very earth that it’s connected to is just a couple hours to the south of me.”
Still, he adds, “in Nashville we sort of stick out like a sore thumb, just like we did in Boston. There are blues bands down there, but no one’s really doing what we’re doing.”
No indeed. Xylophone, for instance, isn’t an instrument you find on many blues recordings. But there it is, on Luck in a Hurry’s opener, “Tupelo,” skittering like a skeleton dancing at the crossroads, as Drozdowski’s guitar looms like a bad moon rising. “Do Wrong Man” is blues, for sure, but it also recalls the garage-rock rev-ups of Detroit bands like the Gories. And “Whiskey and Maryjane” is a stomping paean to the joys of getting good and fucked up, with a larynx-lacerating vocal turn from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Dicky Barrett.
That song is as fine a showcase as any for Drozdowski’s slide skills, which, not to put too fine a point on it, are face-melting. “I like the way the slide is sort of like a human voice. I also like that slide gets into these weird little microtonalities. Unless you’re super, super precise, all your slide notes aren’t necessarily on that note. And I really like that indefinite thing.”
Scissormen shows have become infamous for Drozdowski’s ability to play slide with any object proffered by the crowd. The inside cover of Luck in a Hurry shows him running a rabbit’s foot over his fretboard. Cigarette lighters and hard packs are common, he says. At Bonnaroo, he played with a Frisbee and a folding chair.
“But often the weirdest ones have been in Mississippi, where I played with a machete. And one night, I was in the middle of the audience and one club owner said, ‘Here, play with this!’ I reached out and grabbed it, and it was a nine-millimeter handgun with the clip taken out.” So bring some challenging items (no weapons, please) to Lizard Lounge this Friday, where Drozdowski promises “a really, really long set” for a homecoming at which he’ll be backed by two of his regular collaborators, drummers Rob Hulsman and Larry Dersch, whose presence behind him, he says, is “like having a flamethrower pointed at my ass.”
Drozdowski has, of course, been writing about blues and roots music for many years. As a journalist, he got to meet, share stages with, and sometimes befriend such Mississippi legends as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Kimbrough is paid tribute on Luck in a Hurry’s “Junior’s Blues.” But it’s Burnside — who was once a dinner guest in Drozdowski’s Eastie apartment, with post-prandial screenings of Amos ’n’ Andy — whom he credits for “redirecting me more from writing about music and toward being in the center of playing it.” Burnside also was known as a font of wisdom and advice. Among the apothegms Drozdowski remembers most fondly: “If a man offers you a bottle of whiskey, take it. If you don’t want it now, you’re gonna want it later.”
SCISSORMEN + PETER PARCEK BAND + DARIEN BRAHMS | Lizard Lounge | October 17 at 9 pm | $8 | 627.524.9038 or www.lizardloungeclub.com