By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
There are a slew of young 21st-century black musicians who are resurrecting Delta blues, Piedmont blues and ragtime, including the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hubby Jenkins, Nansamba Ssensalo of the California Honeydrops, and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Whether playing it pure or switching to more experimental mode, they are contemporaries of young, white musicians like the Mammals, Old Crow Medicine Show and L.A.-based Frank Fairfield, who’ve gotten in touch with their inner Harry Smith. (Fairfield stands on L.A. street corners dressed like a Depression-era Southern preacher and sings old Dock Boggs songs.) Blues and trad never disappeared from black culture; artists like Taj Mahal, Otis Taylor, Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Ben Harper have kept traditions from the ’60s and on vital. L.A. native Jerron Paxton is a 20-year old, shit-hot country blues guitarist who’s fluid on banjo, piano, washboard and mouth harp. Sight-impaired (hence his “Blind Boy” moniker), he’s a behatted and well-fed R. Crumb character — a jovial cat whose humor is a tightrope walk between warmth and a knowing edge. “What I’ve noticed about the [blues] musicians is the black ones who do it are never bad,” submits Paxton. “It seems like they got the right voice, the right picking style. Everything seems to synch up. I just picked up my guitar and started playing in my natural voice. Did a hell of a lot of practicing, but I didn’t think of it as having to work too hard. My white friends said, ‘I struggled, I learned it note for note, I tried to sing like them.’ ”
Paxton dubs this phenom “Negro Finger Envy.”
War too credits the undeniable progenitors of the blues: “We made it. [laughs] I can’t do, what I consider, “white music” so well. I can’t play Mexican music. With blues, it’s what black guys did with guitars. It’s a culture thing.”
Her explanation for the appeal traditional music holds is equally straightforward, but it’s an enduring truth that has long motivated a certain subset of young artists: “It has soul. Everything from the past is better than it is now. Our way of life was more honest. We were more connected to God, to the Earth and to each other. People use to actually play instruments; now it’s all computer stuff. I like the idea of not having a TV, cooking, drinking and playing guitar with your friends. Old music sounds like utopia to me.”
War counts her tribe of punky outcasts as family. Fialka recalls an incident at the Sponto Gallery in Venice, where he met her while he was hosting an antiwar screening/talk. “I said, ‘The current war can only be stopped if everyone stopped buying anything and didn’t go to work,’ ” Fialka recalls. “And Sunny’s in the front row with five punk cats and they all go, ‘That’s what we do!’ [Laughs.] She began playing Sponto. At a Bloomsday event, people celebrating literature, I told Sunny, ‘You can play one song.’ She plays one song and we pass a hat and she made 50 bucks. Fifty bucks for one song!”
Though Fialka co-produced a homemade solo disc, War enters the studio this fall to begin recording full band tracks with producer/engineer Thom Russo (Audioslave, Johnny Cash, Macy Gray, Michael Jackson). Gibson Guitars has signed her for a sponsorship, and BMI has inked her song licensing. She’ll soon begin classical guitar lessons at Flea’s Silverlake Conservatory of Music, wants to learn music theory and how to play metal “like Slayer,” War says.
Bring it on.
Sunny War performs on Monday, July 20 at the Talking Stick in Venice from 7:30-8 p.m., and on Thursday, July 23 at the Mint at 8 p.m.