Like jazz, the blues has its share of late bloomers -- artists who didn't start recording or didn't become well-known until they were well into their 50s or 60s. R.L. Burnside is very much a late bloomer; the Mississippi bluesman was born in 1926, but it wasn't until the 1990s that he started to enjoy the publicity he deserved. Recorded in 2000, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down finds the veteran singer continuing to be fairly unpredictable at 73. Essentially, this CD falls into the Mississippi blues category -- Burnside maintains the earthy, down-home rawness that people expect from Mississippi country-blues. But Burnside certainly isn't without urban influences, and this CD illustrates his appreciation of John Lee Hooker and early Muddy Waters as well as the Texas blues of Lightnin' Hopkins. Burnside has also been influenced by R&B; one of the few tracks that he didn't write or co-write is a cover of Aretha Franklin's 1960s smash "Chain of Fools." The producers (who include Andy Kaulkin, John Porter, and Brad Cook) try to make that track and others relevant to hip-hop by adding sampling and scratching -- and when they do, it sounds forced and unnatural. Some of the producing is simply too high-tech for an artist as raw as Burnside, but that doesn't make his vocals any less impressive. Despite its imperfections, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down is a generally appealing document of Burnside at 73.
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The old adage that you can take the man out of the country but you can't take the country out of the man rings out like Sunday-morning church bells on R.L. Burnside's Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down . Producer John Porter (Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Billy Bragg, the Smiths) has taken the Mississippi hill-country guitarist, singer and songwriter into the studio without his six-string and put him in the company of session players like guitarist Smokey Hormel (Tom Waits, Beck) and ambient scratchers DJ Pete B and DJ Swamp. But the raw, lonesome sound of Burnside's voice prevails over tape loops and studied roots guitar licks, making the set one of the most successful blends of blues and technology to ever be captured in the studio. It's a dark set with Burnside starting off talking about fathers and sons being killed in Chicago on the droning choruses of "Hard Time Killing Floor." Pete B's scratching and a slinky slide guitar give the Skip James tune a rootless, alienated feel that carries over to more traditional blues interpretation of the title cut. Here, only Burnside and his regular guitarist, Kenny Brown, are present, but they carry the weight of the world with them. Gone are the rough and tumble good times of the recordings Burnside did with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and yet, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, with its stories of poverty, injustice, drunkenness, and heartbreak, is a natural extension of that work. For though times change at the pace of a lazy river in Mississippi, Burnside is a blues survivor who at times brings a too vivid past into the moment. On the final cut, a potent talking blues "R. L.'s Story," Burnside tells the fuller tale of how murdered relatives on the mean streets of Chicago drove him back to a lean life of sharecropping.