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Talk to a purveyor of the blues long enough and you'll eventually hear about how (irony of ironies) the fans in Europe have so much more respect for the form than do their counterparts in the U.S. of A., where the genre was born. But according to guitarist/vocalist Judah Bauer of 20 Miles, an outfit that pairs him with his drumming brother Donovan, there's a distasteful flip side to this Old Country reverence. Call it purism run amok.
"We were just over there doing all these Fat Possum shows," says Bauer, 28, referring to the gutbucket blues label to which 20 Miles is signed. "We were with T-Model Ford and Paul Jones, who are some really hardcore blues guys, and when we played, there were a lot of very upset crowds. They're really uptight over there; the blues fans only like blues, and they don't like anything that even reminds them of rock and roll. So there was a lot of antagonism every night, a lot of fighting, people booing and throwing beer and water and shit. And these people were, like, old, man. They were old enough to be my parents.
"I couldn't believe they had no wisdom for their years," he goes on. "It was like Dylan going electric. I'd go, 'Sorry, man, we're playing rock and roll. You've heard of it, right?'"
Bauer should be accustomed to this sort of abuse. In addition to his 20 Miles duties, he's the man behind the ax for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a past Westword profile subject ("Spencer for Hire," April 26, 1995) that tends to split listeners into two warring camps -- one that lauds the group for its raucous, cheeky, deconstructionist take on rock verities, and another that sees Spencer, Bauer and drummer Russell as annoying smartasses who are making fun of classic American sounds, not celebrating them. Still, Bauer admits that his recent European rejection left him feeling "angry -- really angry. I was doing really dumb shit, like spitting at people. Well, not at them, but just spitting to show them, you know, 'Fuck you!' It was weird, because I didn't know I could be such an angry person."
I'm a Lucky Guy, the most recent 20 Miles disc (it came out on Fat Possum/Epitaph in late 1998), isn't exactly bubbling over with angst and ire, either. The CD has some up-tempo moments, including the opening track, "East St. Louis," which sports a Stonesy riff and some honkin' harmonica, and "Like a Fool," a fast-paced shuffle of a love song. But even "Talk to Me," which concerns a woman who's maintaining a conversational boycott against poor Judah, stops short of vituperativeness, thanks in large part to a falsetto that he slips on and off like a particularly silly suit of clothes. Elsewhere, Judah's vocals come across as relaxed, unpolished and, on the lazy, keening "Sympathize," conspicuously sincere. Anti-Spencerites take note: The album has virtually no tongue-in-cheek moments. Instead, it's a spare but enjoyable effort whose most appealing characteristic is probably its modesty.
Much the same can be said of Bauer himself. He regularly runs down his musical ability ("I've tried playing solo, but I just don't think I'm good enough") and shies away from mythmaking. A 20 Miles biography put out by Fat Possum following the release of I'm a Lucky Guy seems like an attempt to establish the Bauer boys' blues cred, asserting that their hardscrabble formative years in Appleton, Wisconsin, included plenty of "depression meals (watery tuna on crackers)" and a gig digging graves in a local cemetery. But while Bauer doesn't dispute the verity of these tales, he doesn't like talking about them. "Our new bio is completely generic and gives no information. It doesn't get into all those innocuous details. I want to talk about music."
In that respect, he's more forthcoming than Donovan, his elder by two years. The brothers were in a band together in their mid-teens, but while Judah subsequently dedicated himself to music full-time, first with an act called the Honeymoon Killers and later with Jon Spencer, Donovan made occasional experimental films that he financed with a variety of jobs (he's currently doing construction) that never quite added up to a career. A few years back, when Judah, during a break from the Blues Explosion, decided to start a side project of his own, he recruited Donovan, and following a preliminary single, they headed down to Mississippi to record 20 Miles' self-titled debut with a handful of locals, including T-Model Ford's drummer, known as Spam, and a fife-and-drum duo consisting of R.L. Boyce and Othar Turner. The result of this experiment sounded like blues to most folks, but not to Judah. "I don't think we've ever done a blues album, even when we went down South," he says. "To me, that was just my usual garagey rock-and-roll stuff with some different guys."
As for I'm a Lucky Guy, "I didn't really want it to rock at all. I didn't want any cymbals on it, because cymbals have destroyed my ears over the years, and I couldn't handle the volume. I wanted to make a record I could fall asleep to. But I guess I've been doing rock for so long that it's kind of become my thing. So it got away from me, and we ended up with quite a bit of stuff that rocked anyway" -- much to the chagrin of the guy living directly below Bauer's New York City apartment, where the album was cut. "This neighbor would keep coming up and showing me pieces of the ceiling. He'd get pretty mad, but actually we get along now. Maybe it's because we stopped rehearsing for the week his wife was at home dying of cancer."
When it came time to promote Lucky Guy back in 1998, Bauer managed to schedule only a few dates owing to his feeling that "we needed more time to work things out," not to mention his commitment to the Blues Explosion. If given the choice between the two groups, he'd choose to pour his energy into 20 Miles. He says it's "more interesting" to him than the Spencer project these days, perhaps because he knows the Blues Explosion formula by heart. "I've been doing it for so long that I'm totally a professional, totally proficient at that. And when you're singing, you have to do more relating. You definitely are sticking your neck out there more. Plus, I'm into other kinds of stuff than just the whole rock-and-roll-extrovert thing that Jon's into. His band is a party band, a tear-the-house-down kind of band, and I don't always feel like that. So it's nice when I can play some other kinds of music."
He'll get that chance during 20 Miles' first proper tour, a 33-date excursion that will take the Bauers from coast to coast and up into Canada. But after that, the future is more wide open than he'd like. Judah has oodles of new songs nearing completion, but he'd like to finish them up with the help of a bassist, and since he hasn't found one yet who'll devote himself to the combo, he's stuck. There's also the matter of Donovan, who Judah says "isn't willing to make this his goal in life. He doesn't stick around, and he doesn't commit to anything. He'll be a musician for a while and then that's it -- he won't pick up the sticks for a year or so. And he's not going to get any better that way. The last record was all right, and he has an interesting way of playing; he has kind of a marching rhythm he plays in that I guess he picked up from Othar and those guys when we went down to Mississippi. But he has to concentrate so hard on his drumming to make up for his lack of practice that he isn't learning how to do other things."
Judah thinks he could stand to improve, too. "I need to do some woodshedding," he concedes, "and I need to learn how to sing instead of just yelling in G. I mean, if I would have known what I was doing, I never would have done some of the shit that's on the record. I listen to that shit and I think, 'Man, no shame.' Like 'Oh Ruby' [on Lucky Guy]. It was a live take, and I liked it when we did it, but now when I listen to it, I'm like, 'That sounds retarded.'"
Not that he thinks those disgruntled blues aficionados in Europe were right to heckle him. "They appreciate a lot of great music that doesn't get a chance here, but they also appreciate a lot of garbage that doesn't deserve to exist. A lot of those blues bands over there that think they're playing the blues are just a bunch of losers from Sweden or something. They're just cover bands. And then there are a lot of awful American bands that you thought disappeared, like REO Speedwagon and Quiet Riot.
"I know we can't compare with some of the other Fat Possum guys as far as blues, but that's not what we do," he says. "And what's so bad about rock and roll?"