By Ellie Rogers
Cedric Burnside was born into the blues. As the grandson of Mississippi legend, RL Burnside, he was raised-up by the music and the road and has been playing professionally since he was 13 years old. He recently took home the prize for ‘Best Traditional Blues Album’ at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards for I Be Tryingand has rightfully been recognised as the world’s greatest living Mississippi Hill Country Blues artist.
It’s an exciting time to see Cedric because the size of venues he’s playing on this current tour haven’t quite caught up with his newly GRAMMY-endorsed levels of brilliance. The stage for this particular performance, for example, is at Bristol’s Exchange – a small, community-owned grassroots venue that holds around 250 people. With band posters and stickers plastering its every wall and quirky upcycled decor made out of old drum kits and the like, it’s the perfect setting to experience a genre of music that was born out of the heart and soul of a community that champions the imperfect beauty of real life over superficial flashiness every time.
At around 8:15pm, Cedric cuts his way through a bustling crowd to appear on stage, clad in a t-shirt instantly recognisable to anyone who’s been eyeing-up the merch stand before the show.
He cheerily greets the audience and explains that he had been planning on opening the show with a solo acoustic set but had to change his plans because his trusty acoustic guitar broke during soundcheck. But Cedric’s a pro and it’s a case of ‘no acoustic, no problem’ as he grabs a Fender Strat instead and sits right down to play ‘Love Her ‘Til I Die’ from 2015’s Descendants of Hill Country album. “It’s alright to dance a little bit”, he tells the crowd with a smile.
In classic Hill Country Blues style, the song settles straight into an infectious groove, powered along by a repetitive riff and vocals that sometimes lead and sometimes follow the guitar. The wounded acoustic also gets a cameo appearance on stage as it sits just to Cedric’s left. Perhaps it’s there for decorative purposes, or perhaps it’s just so the old girl doesn’t feel left out of the whole occasion.
Next up comes a rendition of ‘The World Can Be So Cold’ from the GRAMMY-winning I Be Trying. Although the track was recorded acoustically, this necessarily electrified version has, by happy accident, a little more brightness and sparkle than the song as we know it. Its melodic chorus sits atop Cedric’s ever-rhythmic guitar playing, and his unamplified foot stomp is audible even from the back of the room, such is the silent transfixation of the crowd.
Cedric seems as relaxed and natural live on stage as he might if he were playing on his front porch, and he slips into ‘Hard To Stay Cool’ from 2018’s Benton County Relic. By this point, the hypnotizing grooves and droning bass notes are starting to work their magic, and the crowd is beginning to sway en masse.
Another highlight of this opening solo set comes in the form of a rendition of ‘Mellow Peaches’ – a staple of the Hill Country Blues songbook that was written by Big Joe Williams, but also recorded by Cedric’s “Big Daddy,” RL Burnside. Cedric’s version is as authentic as any that has come before, and he departs mid-way through for an eyes-shut guitar ramble that – almost spiritually – to channel his forefathers. When he opens his eyes again, he looks up to see the crowd dancing, smiles to himself and picks the groove right back up from where he left it. The audience is absolutely in awe.
In the break between sets, or “the pause for the cause” as Cedric puts it, he heads straight into the crowded floor to say hi to fans and have a chat – instructing everybody to “put on your dancing shoes – if you ain’ t got ’em on already” for part two. His down-to-earth persona isn’t just for the stage, it seems.
After just a short while, he returns, this time accompanied by drummer Artemas Lesueur who takes his seat behind the kit. Having spent almost all of his youth playing drums in his grandfather’s touring band, Cedric knows a thing or two about how to lay down a beat, and often records his albums’ drum parts himself. Of course, in a live environment, he simply can’t do everything himself, but rhythm duties are in safe hands (and feet) with Artemas, who in fact mentored Cedric in his earlier days.
The pair launch straight into ‘We Made It’ – the opening track from Benton County Relic. The addition of Artemas, who is dressed in bright red from his hat right down to his sneakers, transforms the dynamic – both sonically and visually. With a funky pocket groove, a bass drum you can feel in your chest and a fierce snare sound that cracks like a whip, now it’s really party time.
For this set, Cedric has donned an all-mahogany Aronson Custom Les Paul-type guitar with a strap that has the word ‘Burnside’ embroidered on it in gold. It’s a nice touch – not that anyone is likely to forget his name after this performance.
Neither Artemas nor Cedric seem to have written setlists for their cues, so there’s either true familiarity or a spot of telepathy at work as they power into ‘Please Tell Me Baby’. It’s hard to overstate just how deep the groove is on this, and some members of the audience have become so immersed in it that they’ve closed their eyes to experience the trans-like sonics with their other senses shut off. For the cherry on top, Cedric delivers a wild, heartfelt solo jam, while Artemas’ heavy right foot keeps the beat going. It’s transcendent stuff.
Next up comes ‘Typical Day’ – another tune from Benton County Relic. They say that the key to good songwriting is to write what you know, and in this charmingly matter-of-fact track, Cedric cheerfully recounts what he gets up to on a day-to-day basis. Activities include: drinking coffee, rolling a joint, picking up a guitar to write a song or two, and maybe taking a few phone calls from people who want to get together and play the blues with him. All in all, it doesn’t sound like a bad way to while away the time!
Conversely, the song that follows – an interpretation of Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Keep Your Hands Off Her’ – is an emotional expedition that travels from infatuation, to hurt, and through to downright menace. This is the blues, of course, so the topic of love is fittingly double-edged.
There’s no facade in this music. It’s all real – from the emotion, to the lyrics and vocals, to the guitar playing and drumming. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s absolutely no hole left in the sound by not having a bassist or second guitarist up on stage. The sound is full and rich, and Cedric’s guitar tone is simultaneously lemon juice sharp at the top end, and boomingly bassy on the bottom.
He’s achieved this by using two very different amps in tandem: a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe combo for sparkly leads, and an Orange bass head with a 4×10” cab to carry the deep droning bass notes.
As they close out the track, Artemas embellishes the beat with lots of intricate fills, and you can just about see little splinters of wood flying off his drumsticks and catching in the light as he clouts the cymbals. The crowd showed their appreciation for this remarkable duo with a huge round of applause, which is received humbly.
Another highlight is ‘What Makes Me Think’, which features a groove so filthy it affects the muscles of the face – a sign of appreciation recognised in muso circles the world over. This is meant as no slight to Cedric, but it would be captivating enough to watch Artemas play drums on his own for an hour, and that can’t be said for a lot of drummers.
As the set nears its close, Cedric swaps back to the Fender Stratocaster that he used as an acoustic substitute at the very beginning of the night for rousing renditions of ‘Step In’ and ‘I Be Trying’ – the title track from his much- celebrated latest record. His vocals are raw and on point and, with long improvised sections that are simultaneously loose and tight, Cedric and Artemas deliver a performance that epitomises the true heart and soul of Mississippi Hill Country Blues.
There’s a humble genius to Cedric Burnside, and the whole show has been a masterclass disguised as a party.
Cedric’s tour continues this summer in the UK, Europe and USA with tickets available here
Listen to Cedric Burnside’s “Step In”
Cedric Burnside website