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Burnside rooted in the blues.

Byline: Thomas Caywood

Kent Burnside aims to get you out on the dance floor.

The soulful, rollicking Mississippi-bred bluesman all but dares you to kick back in your chair meekly tapping a toe or nodding your head to the beat when his band, Kent Burnside and The New Generation, rolls into Gilrein's on Saturday night.

"Hey, we're gonna boogie, man," Mr. Burnside vowed in a north Mississippi accent as thick as day-old grits. "You guys ain't seen nothing yet. I plan on making a mark there."

A bold prediction. But with guitar chops and family genes like his, don't bet against it. Better wear comfortable shoes, too.

Mr. Burnside, 38, now based in Des Moines, Iowa, lived with his influential grandfather, the late bluesman R.L. Burnside, in rural Mississippi from sixth grade through high school.

Against the backdrop of 1970s Mississippi, with the jagged wounds of civil rights struggles still tender, the country boy was awed to see whites and blacks coming together peacefully to hear his grandfather play at local house parties. In that place, at that time, it was as convincing a demonstration of the power of music as he could imagine.

Mr. Burnside soon taught himself to play guitar - pronounced "GEE-tar" in his Deep South drawl - by listening to his grandfather finger-picking on the porch. His hard-drinking grandfather's hypnotic, raw style would later come to define the hill country blues sound that gained prominence in the early 1990s and that inspired today's diverse crop of musicians fusing primitive blues grooves with punk grit in a new style dubbed "deep blues."

Mr. Burnside, one of more than 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren of R.L. Burnside, and a father of eight, played the third annual Deep Blues Festival in Minneapolis in July. He said he was astonished and pleased to hear most of the gathered alt-blues bands from across the country and several European nations covering R.L. Burnside songs.

One of the bands at that festival, New England's preeminent purveyors of gut-bucket deep blues and veterans of numerous Worcester performances, The Ten Foot Polecats, will open for Mr. Burnside at his Worcester and Boston shows. Also on the bill for the Gilrein's performance is the city's own traditional blues master, Jon Short.

Kent Burnside may be an heir to blues royalty, but he has no interest in simply mimicking his grandfather's influential style. Mr. Burnside said he has passed up record deals from labels that seemed to be looking only to cash in on his family name.

"I love that music, but I want to be me as well. I'm gonna do what Kent want to do," he said.

He self-released his third CD, "Evil," earlier this year. Tracks such as "In My Room" and "Crazy Woman" combine Mr. Burnside's growled vocals with smoldering blues-rock lead guitar licks in a combination likely to appeal to fans of Stevie Ray Vaughn - or even Jimi Hendrix.

Filling out the band's big sound are New Generation vets Jacob Best on drums and Gabe Meyers on rhythm guitar. Wes Martin will be joining the group on bass for its swing through the Northeast this month, Mr. Burnside said.

On some songs, Mr. Burnside's soul and funk influences juke and jive their way to the fore in a bluesy mix that would sound more at home on Bourbon Street in New Orleans than on the Mississippi Delta. Whether he's baring his rock fangs or bringing the funk, the hill country grooves Mr. Burnside learned at his grandfather's side slither through the music like a kingsnake in a cotton field.

Some of R.L. Burnside's best songs have no chord changes. The distinctive grooves are propelled instead by the rhythm of his strumming or, on later recordings, by the maniacal slide-guitar howl laid down by sideman Kenny Brown.

"We used to sit on the back porch and just take a groove and just keep a ridin' with it. Just keep it rolling," Mr. Burnside recalled. "If you playing the hill country beat, you can't sit down. It's boogie music to me."

Unlike his grandfather, who famously proclaimed he could no longer play guitar after he quit drinking on his doctor's orders in 2001, Kent Burnside has never had any use for booze.

The boogie is his drug.

"When people are dancing, that's my energy. My high is when I get on that stage. I'm a totally different person up there," he said.

While he has his own sound and his own songs, Mr. Burnside also enjoys thrilling audiences with an R.L. Burnside cover or two. Sometimes people come up to the stage and ask him if he knows this or that song of his grandfather's.

"Of course, I do, man. I listened to it all of my life," Mr. Burnside chuckles. "I try to do it for them. But I want them to know that there's a side to me, my music. That's what my grandfather wanted me to do, to play my music."

And that's what he intends to do. Mr. Burnside said he'll continue to send record labels packing until he finds one that's on board with his vision for the music. The same goes for would-be managers.

During the telephone interview for this story, one enterprising manager he had met during a recent show at Buddy Guy's place in Chicago called to make his sales pitch.

Mr. Burnside, the first member of his huge family to go to college, excused himself to take the incoming call, but was back on the line within seconds.

"I just don't jump into it, just like that," he said. "I got to do my homework on you."

Kent Burnside and The New Generation, with The Ten Foot Polecats and Jon Short

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: Gilrein's, 802 Main St., Worcester

How much: $10

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Kent Burnside learned to play guitar by listening to his grandfather, bluesman R.L. Burnside, on the porch of his Mississippi home.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 5, 2009
Words:997
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