Someone who cut his Hill country blues chops at Junior Kimbrough’s Place is always ready.
Lightnin’ Malcolm’s new album “Eye of the Storm” is the result being prepared for a perfect storm.
After years of hoping for it, the timing was right for Malcolm and drummer Brady Blade to record together and for the sessions to be held at Tab Benoit’s studio. “Eye of the Storm” was released Oct. 21 on Benoit’s Whiskey Bayou Records label. Dumpstaphunk bassist Tony Hall, who made a surprise appearance at a session, appears on two songs – he was ready, too.
Most of the tracks, however, are Malcolm’s hypnotic guitar licks recorded live with drum rhythms.
“We’ve (Blade and Malcolm) crossed paths at festivals but we hadn’t played together a lot,” Malcolm said. “It’s scary how he knows every move I’m gonna make. I thought, if I can get him in the studio, I am going to make sure I have a batch of songs ready to roll. And getting Tab’s studio and Tony Hall coming by, it was like a dream come true.”
Benoit’s a renowned guitarist, but he was first a drummer, and he plays drums on most of the records he puts out on Whiskey Bayou. The Louisianan drummed on three of the 11 original songs on “Eye of the Storm,” including the title track. He and Malcolm have a like-minded approach.
“Tab was going for that raw, honest energy,” Malcolm said. “Tab said, ‘I want the real you, the way you do it live.’ I got a little nervous halfway through the day but now that I listen to the playback, if we’d stopped and started and worked stuff out, it wouldn’t have been the same. It’s like running across the high wire if you can do it.
“The album has such a magical charm. You can hear the drums bleeding into the vocal mike. It’s like you are in a club listening to it. With this kind of music, when you start separating stuff and putting gates on the drums and stuff, it starts sounding tame and sterile and that’s almost the worst thing that can happen.”
Malcolm is raw and honest off the stage, too. During an hourlong conversation, he repeatedly compared Blade’s approach to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, stopping each time to acknowledge the audacity of such praise.
“He’s got a similar style,” Malcolm said. “It’s real primal. It’s raw power. But it’s refined. Every note is focused. It means exactly what it says. Sometimes I have to show musicians what I want. With Brady, I almost compare him to John Bonham. He’s so explosive and he’s right on the money knowing where I’m gonna go. It’s actually more exciting to not tell him anything.”
Malcolm knows excitement. He was in his early 20s when he made regular appearances at Junior’s Place in Chulahoma, Mississippi, just down the road from Malcolm’s Holly Springs home. Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, who Malcolm befriended in 1993, are two of the most acclaimed Hill country bluesmen. Junior’s Place was the site on Sundays for raucous get-togethers.
“The best thing I did when I was young is I just threw myself out there into the fire in going and playing black juke joints,” Malcolm said. “They molded me quickly. Because if you couldn’t entertain them and make them dance, they would just throw you out and turn the juke box back on. You had to know how to keep a beat and sing like you meant it.
“You don’t have to do any guitar solos. The foundation of my style isn’t a bunch of fancy notes. I was depending on it for my survival, so I had to pick it up. So when I go onto a stage now, it’s easy. I could get a crowd of 20,000 people way easier than it was to get some of those juke joints and win them over on the first song. Cause if you didn’t get them right away, it was, ’Get this white motherfucker out of here.’ They didn’t have time for that, not with their music.”
It was at Junior’s Place where Malcolm met Luther Dickinson, and for a time in the mid-2010s Malcolm was a member of Luther and brother Cody’s North Mississippi Allstars. Before that, Malcolm and R.L. Burnside’s son, Cedric, were a duo called Wrecking Crew.
When Malcolm received a phone call in 1998 and learned that Junior’s Place had burned down, he said it was like losing a brother.
Asked what remaining juke joints are anything close to having a vibe such as Junior’s Place, Malcolm listed Blue Front Café in Bentonia, Red’s in Clarksdale, and the open-air Firefox Ranch in Waterford.
But Junior’s “was the funnest place in the world. There would be people from all walks of life. You had old people and young college students from Ole Miss. You had women coming in after church all dressed up nice. I’d be playing against the wall, it was so packed in there. Women would be dancing up on you you’d have boobies and booty all up on your guitar neck, trying to play the string right with this woman’s thigh up across it and you’d be drinking moonshine and then they’d push you against the wall. Sometimes I thought I was going to get suffocated, but If I’m going to die, I’m going out grooving.”
Malcolm is a prolific writer. He said he has enough material to record an album a year for the next 20 years. He’s also released so many records, he doesn’t know the total. Some potentially will be reissued on Whiskey Bayou. He has self-managed for much of his career.
“I’ve been a moving target,” he said. “I always stay busy working, playing live. I’m known in many ways, but I’ve really been operating underground in a lot of ways. Almost like a mystery man, tearing up the place and then gone. Who was that masked man? I used to love that but you’ve got to let them know who you are so they can come back and see you again. To me, I felt like that’s how Robert Johnson was. He’d slay the people and then go out the back door before anybody knew who the hell he was.”
“Eye of the Storm” should resonate with music listeners. While the songs are visceral, the lyrics are powerful. The machine gun fire Malcom heard throughout the Mississippi night on New Year’s Eve gave him a clear message. Society indeed, is in the “Eye of the Storm.”
“I think it’s by far my best work yet,” he said. “The album kind of takes you for a ride. Some songs turn your brain on and some turn your brain off. It’s looking at the world out there, putting it into songs.”
‘Eye of the Storm’
Label: Whiskey Bayou Records
Release: Oct. 21, 2022