The Blues Road: Robert Palmer and Scissormen
I’ve encountered Ted Drozdowski a couple of times in the last week. First in Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer, the welcome anthology of Palmer’s writing edited by Anthony DeCurtis. And then performing like a man on fire with his electric (and electrifying) blues-grind band, Scissormen.
Palmer’s Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi (1981) was more than book for generations of music writers and enthusiasts. The survey of hallowed ground became a combination syllabus, sacred text and guidebook for those willing to follow its lead. DeCurtis quotes Ted’s Palmer obituary from the Boston Phoenix in his introductory essay:
“I treated it as a Bible, reading each chapter and then buying every record it mentioned. It was a post-grad-level course. But it was nothing like the firsthand encounters with the music I’ve had in places like Holly Springs, Clarksdale, Greenville, and Rolling Fork. Those have been experiences that changed my life and broadened my understanding of humanity and myself.”
Ted is Exhibit A for the transformative power of the blues, and his quest to completely master the subject both as writer and performer follows Palmer’s shining example. Ted gave me a hand up onto the editorial ladder, first at Musician magazine, and then to The Boston Phoenix. He was a gentle, generous editor and friend. When I became an editor, I was able to return the favor a few times. I also played on shows with Ted’s first bands, and at that time he was playing a slightly off-kilter brand of smart rock, generally letting the spotlight fall on female vocalists. No longer.
From atop tables and banquettes, while testifying in the faces of the audience as he strides through the crowd, turning listeners into trembling tables for his guitar as he wields a slashing slide, Ted and Scissormen demonstrate that the “blues” is more than one 12-bar thing. Gospel, country, Chicago, grind, British Invasion… Ted picks up the various blues live wires and twists them into a high-tension highwire.
Ted also reminds that the blues was Saturday-night music, meant to encourage dancing, induce laughter, and bring solace. He reduces his presentation to the juke-joint duo of guitar and drums (this night, Larry Dersch). That’s plenty, as his guitar fills the club with piercing slide, driving rhythms and plucked bass. Opening with a haunting gospel blues “John the Revelator,” Ted unrolled a tour of blues history, with historical asides and tall tales. He references his mentor R.L. Burnside frequently, and honors Burnside on Scissormen’s last studio recording, Luck in a Hurry, with “The Devil is Laughing,” an original created with Burnside’s characteristic slow grind (check it out below).
A remarkable show, and an inspiring witness to personal and musical transformation.
Go to Smoke for an exclusive track and video.