Album review: Black Keys open door to roomful of rich blues history with “Delta Kream”

The Black Keys, a groundbreaking rock band, have returned to their roots with their latest and tenth studio album in their 20-year career, “Delta Kream” (Nonesuch Records, May 14), and their roots are deep in Mississippi Hill Country blues.

Yes, guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney first got together in Akron, Ohio, not Mississippi, but even then these deep blues had seeped up into the Rust Belt. The two were especially taken with the deep richness of the music of R.L. Burnside and David “Junior” Kimbrough, two founding fathers of Hill Country music.

But that was two decades ago, and after years of heavy-duty rock success, the band is returning to the inspiration that drew them together.

They’ve put together an eleven-song set that includes covers of some of Burnside’s and Kimbrough’s best, using guitarist Kenny Brown, a Burnside sideman, and bassist Eric Deaton, from Kimbrough’s band Percussionist Sam Bacco and organ player Ray Jacildo also lend a hand.

The opening track, though, is “Crawling Kingsnake,” a John Lee Hooker song with heavy Kimbrough overtones. Then they summon up Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Louise” before diving into the deep end of the blues pool with a bunch (I apologize for the use of such technical musical terminology) of Burnside and Kimbrough covers.

There’s no question the Keys are good at this. The put the session together in just two days, with no rehearsals. They reached back for some great old blues.

Auerbach says of the album, “We made this record to honor the Mississippi Hill Country blues tradition that influenced us starting out. These songs are still as important to us today as they were the first day Pat and I started playing together and picked up our instruments. It was a very inspiring session with Pat and me along with Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton in a circle, playing these songs. It felt so natural.”

Carney agrees: “The session was planned only days in advance and nothing was rehearsed. We recorded the entire album in about ten hours, over two afternoons, at the end of the ‘Let’s Rock’ tour.” 

It does feel natural. And thoroughly enjoyable. The only way to enjoy this music more would be to listen to the originals.

Here’s the video for “Crawling Kingsnake,” directed by Tim Hardiman and filmed at Jimmy Duck Holmes’ Blue Front Café in Bentonia, Mississippi, the oldest active juke joint in the nation.

Here’s R.L. Burnside with “Burnside’s Blues” from 1978:

Here’s Junior Kimbrough with “Crawlin’ Kingsnake”:

Tracklist for Delta Kream:

1. “Crawling Kingsnake” (John Lee Hooker / Bernard Besman)
2. “Louise” (Fred McDowell)
3. “Poor Boy a Long Way From Home” (Robert Lee Burnside)
4. “Stay All Night” (David Kimbrough, Jr.)
5. “Going Down South” (Robert Lee Burnside)
6. “Coal Black Mattie” (Ranie Burnette)
7. “Do the Romp” (David Kimbrough, Jr.)
8. “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” (David Kimbrough, Jr.)
9. “Walk with Me” (David Kimbrough, Jr.)
10. “Mellow Peaches” (Joseph Lee Williams)
11. “Come on and Go with Me” (David Kimbrough, Jr.)

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