In case you didn't know it, Judah Bauer -- otherwise known as the other guitar player in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion -- has a band on the side. It doesn't seem to be common knowledge, since at least three pals, music-trivia know-it-alls, all said pretty much the same thing when tipping off this show: "Did you know that the other guitar player in the Blues Explosion is coming to town without Jon? It's what the ad said." Thanks for sharing -- though, in truth, comparisons between the JSBX and 20 Miles are moot; they sound nothing alike. At its best, the JSBX taps into gum-smacking rhythms and tail-shaking beats, and though 20 Miles borrows Extra Width-era slurping blues for its own discs, its grind is its own. Though it doesn't quiver the thighs and glow like Extra Width the morning after, 20 Miles doesn't make you roll over in a disappointed huff. It delivers the goods.
The band is nothing more than Judah (sounding more, well, melodic than ever) on guitar and his brother Donovan on drums. Though the two have been playing together since high school, it wasn't until the JSBX finished Now I Got Worry in 1996 that they had the chance to play the blues, punk. Its first record, the back-to-blues-basics Twenty Miles (released in 1996), doesn't share the muscular songwriting and high-fidelity sounds of its follow-up, 1998's I'm a Lucky Guy, its most recent release. On the latter, the slinky numbers do battle in a drinking contest with garage rock, soul, rockabilly, and bluegrass; the Brothers Grim control the music with spectral guitar lines that fuse hundred-pound heavy grooves with harmonicas that do the rest of the talking.
Finding a home in the spotlight that's usually turned on Spencer, Bauer gets to play frontman in 20 Miles; it's a role he wears with confidence and style. His sometimes timid voice hints at yesterday's Iggy Pop mixed in with East Village blurt and Southern slur; sometimes, he sounds like an old 78, making his style best referred to as buttery abrasion. The man is well deserving of attention beyond the backing vocals he's usually assigned in JSBX, though so often he's no more decipherable on his own records than when Spencer's moaning out front. The basic kick-drum beats possess an odd catchiness; at moments, they trail behind Bauer's guitar trickery fed through on-the-cheap distortion until it becomes hard to discern the intentional from the inept. Still, by the time I'm a Lucky Guy ends, this dynamic duo has distilled indulgences and accomplishments into an intoxicating solution that, when stripped down, might well fool the non-convert into thinking I'm a Lucky Guy is made up of lost outtakes from Let it Bleed or Exile on Main Street. Probably isn't, but it ought to make Jon Spencer jealous as hell.
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