The blues haven’t come out of the 20th century looking good. Following hostile assimilation in the mid-sixties, they’ve since been subjected to every kind of indignity an entire genre ever had to suffer. Unlike jazz, it is possible to play them without expending too much thought or effort; the simple changes attract lazy songwriters trying to get past the chore of writing melodies, the predictable, repetitive structures bring out the worst in soloists, allowing them to noodle on until they’ve well outstayed their welcome. Superficially, they’re easy to listen to and don’t demand much from an audience: all of this has gone towards making this music the staple of every second rate bar band in the world. Today, you can step in on any instrument with any blues band anywhere, without knowing either the musicians or the set-list or your arse from your elbow, and see your way through to the end of the gig without a public shaming.
The blues are also a genre of unparalleled vintage. They’ve been around forever, or as forever as anything in popular music has, a fact which gets purists crawling out of the woodwork, evangelical about authenticity. Koch Shankar is one such: he does songs a century old, singing and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, probably collects out-of-print records by the score and fancies himself to be a “bluesman”. It’s a noble idea, to want to connect your audience to records made before their grandparents were born, it gives an artist the status of curator and guardian of tastes. Sadly, like so many others before him, Koch Shankar falls short: as it turns out, he is also a crushing bore.
An acoustic set is a terrifying thing. If the performer isn’t engaging, you’re stuck with them for the rest of the evening; you don’t have a drummer or a bass-guitarist to focus your attentions on. Worse, the blues are about drinking and sex and getting screwed over; these are meant to be acted out over three chords and bare-bones backing. It needs doing with humour and presence, you need to make eye-contact with your audience and convince them. Koch Shankar isn’t alone in having had this pass him by, he comes at the end of a long line who treat the form as if it were something to be mummified and displayed in a glass case. His considerable prowess at the guitar is undermined by his apparent complete lack of enthusiasm for anything except presenting obscurity after obscurity, handling them with kid gloves, refusing to infuse anything of his own into them for fear of breaking the skin; what little life there is left after this is stifled by the quilt of reverb that he spreads over his guitar sound. By the time he’s done, there isn’t so much as a twitch.
This is a fragile artform. Its inherent simplicity makes it dependent on the artistic generosity of the performer to succeed. It has proven to be invaluable as an ingredient in much of the best pop music, and yet, in the hands of bar bands, it can sound dumb and boorish, and it wilts up and droops limply when treated as a museum piece.
The girl group revival of the mid-noughties was, if not pathbreaking, at least thoroughly enjoyable. Blues revivals, such as they’ve happened, have been largely dusty and boring, stripped of intensity and life. A solitary old man under harsh lighting facing a dinner crowd, staring short-sightedly at a book of scores and mumbling to himself is not just wide off the mark, it is also the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.