BY TOM CALLAHAN
About once a decade, the Great Blues Hope seems to come along and is proclaimed the person who can keep this vital American musical form alive despite the passing of its first and second generation greats. Well, Jarekus Singleton, along with his Alligator Records label mate, Selwyn Birchwood, are the real deal. Listen to the first track of Singlton’s debut Alligator record– “Refuse to Lose”—and you will hear a defiant song of hope in an often hopeless world. You might just be hearing the future of the blues.
Both Singleton and Birchwood are young: born in 1984 and 1985 respectively. Both are southern; Birchwood from Florida and Singleton from the birthplace of the blues, Mississippi. Both are unique in that they both honor the blues tradition—it influences their work but does not dominate it. You are not going to hear from them the 15th million arrangement of “Dust My Broom.” I love that Elmore James and Robert Johnson riff, which helped create rock and roll. But both the young Alligators are not just repeating the blues tradition but reworking it in way unimaginable 20 years ago.
Take Singleton, for example, who bend strings like a bluesman, sings like a soul singer and writes lyrics like a rapper. Born into a family of church musicians and vocalist, he grew up not just with traditional blues around him but with the hip hop of Jay Z and Twista. A top ranked college basketball player, he had tryouts with Indianapolis and Cleveland in the NBA before an injury derailed his career. And he worked for a while as a rapper. On Refuse to Lose he joints together hip hop wordplay, rock and roll energy, R&B grooves and both contemporary and traditional blues into something so unique as to be visionary.
“Refuse to Lose” is a high energy rocker. “Hell” is a slow blues with excellent lyrics and soulful vocals and guitar work reminiscent of one of the Kings, Albert King. The early bluesmen and women were singing about their lives and telling stories about their hopes, dreams and heartaches. That reflected a rural, southern environment. Decades later, rap would do the same thing in an inner city urban America during a time of hopelessness for the young. Singleton borrows from that rap tradition on a great infectious, positive song like “Keep Pushing.” But instead of the driving beat, Singleton’s song is driven by his rollicking guitar work on both rhythm and lead. If blues is to survive it must reflect the world the music is made in.
In baseball, you call somebody the “next Willie Mays” and it is like the curse of death. There could only be one Willie Mays. So you have to be careful with calling somebody the “future of the blues.” Singleton hopefully has a long career ahead of him. But with Refuse to Lose the shows tremendous promise. With both Singleton and Birchwood, the future of the blues is in good hands. Kudos to Alligator boss Bruce Iglauer for having the vision to sign them both.
DOWNLOAD: “Refuse to Lose,” Keep Pushin’ “Hell”