Even if the songs weren’t as consistently good as they are on Kingsville Jukin’, Studebaker John should be given credit simply for releasing an album of all-original material. Which must be why John and his Maxwell Street Kings sound like they’re having such a great time on this album. It must be difficult to phone something in when the material is (A.) New, and (B.) Your Own. The unpretentiousness and genuine affection for the music that is ever-present in John’s live performances is captured to great effect on this release. Of course many people know that recording and performing original material is one of John’s hallmarks, and is obviously one of the things that make him an indispensable part of the modern blues scene, especially in Chicago. John never sands off the rough edges or cow-tows to fad or fashion.
As usual, John is channeling Hound Dog Taylor throughout this album. But that doesn’t keep him from sounding exactly like himself.
Of course the blues is a format that not only allows for but encourages various forms of imitation and re-interpretation. As a large part of the prevailing folk ethos from which blues music was born, it is a general understanding that everything is (at least to a certain extent) borrowed. But blues music has been languishing for far too long in a universe that chooses to exploit this tenet rather than respect it. The result has been a surging wave of releases (some by very respected artists) which are little more than a collection of re-hashed standards and other filler accompanied by only a morsel of original material, which is itself often ill-conceived and formulaic.
In short, there aren’t a lot of people who have been fucking trying.
On this album, you get the sense that John himself has spent far too much time in formerly great juke-joints that are now overrun with glorified wedding bands churning out “Sweet Home Chicago” night after night to audiences who increasingly don’t know to expect any better. Track two, “When They Played the Real Blues,” makes this point pretty clearly.
As usual, John is channeling Hound Dog Taylor throughout this album. But that doesn’t keep him from sounding exactly like himself. People who have only ever listened to The Black Keys or The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or even the North Mississippi All-Stars might be surprised to listen to this album and discover that those artists owe a certain debt to Studebaker John – the minimal production, the fuzzy guitar, the vintage-reverb soaked vocals, the cryptic lyrics. Bad Gasoline, the final track on Kingsville Jukin’, was even recorded directly onto a 78 RPM acetate record. And so we have John trying to sound like himself while he records on technology that pre-dates him by more than half-a-century, and we have younger guys listening to John and trying to create their own style while they emulate John who is himself emulating another guy who is dead. And that dead guy was also trying to do his own thing but borrowed from other dead guys, and it gets confused, and weird, and fascinating and mesmerizing and it’s hard to tell who did what first but it all sounds great. This understanding of the actual spirit of “borrowing” is what makes Kingsville Jukin’ a success, and its misunderstanding is what makes far too many albums failures.