Treefort Music Festival Day 3: On Cedric Burnside and the Transformative Power of the Blues

Live Reviews
Martin Douglas
Mississippi 2018 // photo by Abraham Rowe

My second time this week adroitly circumventing a line which led down the block was for Cedric Burnside, the third-generation blues musician inspiring the long waits and attendees potentially getting turned away rivaled that of Vince Staples and JPEGMAFIA on Thursday night. Honestly, I was a little surprised; so surprised, in fact, I asked the bouncer if my suspicion was correct. He affirmed.

Before the set started, a young woman next to me told her companion, "This show is going to be really good. It's like, real rock 'n roll." In my decade of work in the field of music journalism, I have strived to boil down an artist's essence so succinctly.

Like the truest of bluesmen, Burnside began the set seated with an acoustic guitar, wailing about the kind of love that will stay with him and escort him to his grave. Like the truest of bluesmen, he sang and played from the pit of his fucking soul.

When Burnside switched to a standing position and played choice selections from last year's Benton County Relic, he summoned a frenzy of people trying their best to dance away their sorrows and draw out the beer sweats. There was barely enough room for people to move their bodies without rubbing up against each other, which I imagine all the best blues clubs from back in the day were like. 

"Give it to You" was the rare come-on song that didn't sound sleazy, while "We Made It" felt like an anthem for anyone whose nails are chipped from scratching and clawing their way through life. In most of the best blues songs I've heard, love and death are never too far away from each other; in so many ways the two are spiritually connected. Hard times are rendered in a way that barely needs words at all, therefore it's better if those words are plainspoken.

When Burnside switched to drums, he arguably played them with even more preternatural ability than his gifted-yet-minimalist facility with guitar. (His father, Calvin Jackson, began his innovation with percussion with his future father-in-law, R.L. Burnside, when he was 16.)

And when he bowed before the crowd, there were, of course, lots of cheering and clapping, but just as many showgoers saying "hell yeah" and "wow" to each other on their way out. Such is the power of the blues, where so much depth can be articulated with so few tools.

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