Because so many of us discovered the blues after it was a primary musical style for contemporary African-American life, we often think of it as an old man’s music. But the great artists in blues history – Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, etc. – were all young when they started playing. They weren’t carrying on a tradition, they were creating it out of the reality they experienced, out of the form that seemed endlessly elastic, out of the zeitgeist that made blues the expression of what people were living.
The blues certainly still has plenty to offer, but it is not the music of everyday life for any but a few hardcore fanatics who resist mainstream culture in order to make it so. When we encounter a young man like Marquise Knox, still a year or two shy of being able to legally purchase a drink of alcohol, and discover that he is as immersed in the blues as any of his forebears were, there is a tendency to consider him an oddity, a creature outside the norm who can’t possibly be what he appears to be. Who knows what kind of conversations Knox has held with the other teens in his neighborhood as to how he fits into the culture around him? He is concerned with following in the footsteps of the blues artists he heard while growing up.
Marquise Knox's Here I Am
Here I Am is the third album Knox has recorded since he reached the age of 16. While it is difficult to imagine how he does it, Knox is making music as fully vivid and expressive as any of the blues icons he so obviously worships. Nine original songs take elements here and there from the work of such greats as Albert King, to name one obvious influence, and three covers of Muddy Waters classics reveal one key influence to be something he doesn’t want to shake. But there is never any question that we are listening to someone who has his own view of the blues, who may not have lived through all the pain his songs describe, but who understands exactly how the music soothes it by stating so clearly the emotions under consideration.
The album starts with the title track, a statement of purpose and biography that reveals his confidence and self-assurance that he belongs in the world of the blues. “Here I am,” he sings, “I’m doin’ what I do best.” His guitar tone definitely brings Albert King to mind, and he even captures King’s method of making each note ring out as an important part of the story. But his second solo moves into a more staccato, more personal approach. There are still no wasted notes, no excess flair. Everything Knox sings and plays is exactly what is necessary to make his point.
Tears Feel Like Rain
“You Better Pray” is a Knox original that uses some of his Muddy Waters licks as a ready-made statement of power and bravado. “Two Can Play” is built on his vocal skills, alternately supple and hard, mixing his hurt at finding out he’s been cheated on with his need to hurt back by cheating too. “Tears Feel Like Rain” is a minor-key, sorrowful tale with a decidedly King-like feel. Knox works up his loss into pure musical sound, becoming more and more filled with the need to cry out, exploding with a particularly gut-wrenching display of guitar after the second verse.
In Knox’s native St. Louis, the blues community has long been familiar with a song by a popular guitarist named Billy Peek, who wrote “Can A White Boy Play The Blues?” Knox asks a similar question with “Can A Young Man Play The Blues?” The answer is obvious, but it’s important for Knox to be aware of the tradition he is entering, to connect with what has gone before. It’s also just plain fun to hear him belt out “Not only can I play ‘em, listen here, I can sing ‘em, too.”
Honoring Muddy Waters
In a similar fashion, Knox is aware that the blues can respond at least in part to larger social themes, placing “America’s Blues” as a hard-hitting questioning of the assumptions he’s been taught. “America’s so beautiful, they tell me this here’s the land of the free / But it’s getting’ so bad a man can’t hardly feed his family.” That’s a hard-hitting couple of lines to hear from someone trying to build his future.
The Muddy Waters covers are love letters to the music he so much admires. Knox approaches them with reverence, but not so much so that he can’t play a little bit with the rhythms to make them his own. These are songs well established in the canon of the blues – “Feel Like Goin’ Home,” “Two Trains Running,” and “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” It’s clear he’s lived a long time with these songs, and playing and singing them feels like something natural and comfortable.
Steve's Bottom Line
Marquise Knox at 19 has recorded as strong a blues record as any released in the past year. He is going to be a major force in this music for a long time to come. While he’s already a star in St. Louis, he still needs to establish a bigger name for him everywhere else. As long as he loves the music this much, this seems like a foregone conclusion. (APO Records, released June 28, 2011)
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