Harriet Tubman and James "Blood" Ulmer
January 11, 2020
New York City
Rock and roll is Black music. White musicians play it, and play it well—like every other music it belongs as a practice (not an object) to those who make it with sincerity—but it began as Black music. And as this double-bill in the cozy kitsch-chic of The Sultan Room shows, it's at its best in the hands of Black musicians. That's because rock, at its best, is about shit.
Rock was about shit from the start, even if that was only youthful rebellion and sexual energy. The great era of rock as culturally meaningful was about 50 years ago, and we've been looking back with ossified nostalgia ever since. In that span, rock, like just about every other meaningful cultural practice in America, has become academicized—people with the proper credentials making it and, especially, debating it. Literary studies have gradually replaced music studies as the context, the focus has shifted to narrative and stories that either reflect or comfort the bourgeois listener.
But if you like your rock to be about shit, the kind of shit that only music—not words—can convey, about the experience of the soul, both yours and that of others, then Harriet Tubman and Blood Ulmer are making your kind of music. Harriet Tubman, the trio of guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer J.T. Lewis, is just about the best rock bands out there right now, their peers musicians like Gary Clarke Jr, Benjamin Booker, Lightning Bolt, and Dommengang, all musicians who lay into the music and get it into your body.
Harriet Tubman’s set got into the body and ravished it. This starts with the tremendous force of their sound; Ross’s succinct guitar lines are miniature squalls, Gibbs has a huge, ropy bottom end, and Lewis plays with unmistakable rolling rhythms and a cracking backbeat. They put these together with polyrhythms that pulse like shifting continents, Ross carving his way through the top.
They play from a place of personal power and commitment. The two-note theme to “The Green Book Blues” is just that, two notes. But there is an aching chasm between the first and second, it’s like descending from one massive mountain to the next—think of all that can happen, all that can run through the mind between those two steps. That’s what the band delivers.
Along with the hellacious playing, there’s the utterly compelling figure of Gibbs. One of the treasures of New York City music, he’s been at the center of punk, rock, funk, new wave, no wave, jazz, and improvisation of all kinds for decades. His amiable introductions, talking about prehistoric gigantic mushrooms and Facebook fauxtrage, are not just entertaining but show he’s just about the clearest thinker around. Ross mentions that he and Lewis are fans of Star Trek: Discovery, and that and songs like “Blacktal Fractal” not only have Afrofuturist color but show there’s no division between head, heart, and hips—they are all parts of a whole.
The maelstrom of their playing is sublimely beautiful, not for nothing is their most recent album titled The Terror End of Beauty (2018). They finish with “Can’t Tarry,” which Gibbs introduced by telling a story of enslaved Igbo people who escaped their masters and made their way to the Atlantic coast. Knowing only that they “Can’t tarry here no more,” they walked into the sea. This is the one and only vocal number the band does, with Ross singing the story. It is an incredible blues, crushing in its sorrow and also thrilling in the rueful, indomitable perseverance that Harriet Tubman delivers to a country that may not deserve it.
Blood Ulmer does the same thing, in a more abstract and touchingly bemused sense. As introduced, he melds the avant-garde with the delta blues, extending Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics into new territory. He’s playing with his Odyssey Trio that goes back to his great 1983 Odyssey album: Blood playing guitar and singing, Charlie Burnham on the electric violin, and Warren Benbow playing drums.
The key track on that album was “Are You Glad to Be in America?” and when Blood sings it in early 2020, it takes on an entirely new meaning and depth. That was always there, but perhaps the layers weren’t clear to a white listener until we collapsed our way into the 21st century. Blood introduces another song by saying “Somebody’s got to be president of hell because there’s a whole lot of people down there.”
Burnham spins out solos that are more fiddle than violin—there’s a country flavor, joy, the music is dancing. The harmolodic concept is hazy, but at its best, like with these three, the music is organized around melody, it’s close to singing. Like Harriet Tubman, the trio is singing the blues in a way that erases past and present. The blues is captured in songs, but it starts out with a sound from the body, it’s the need to sing out. Blood is not outside history, telling stories, he’s a Black musician who brought his own blues into jazz and rock, he’s a Black musician living in a country that continues to prosecute history against African-Americans, and where, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, the worst obstacles come from white liberals who would like to see change in the abstract as long as it doesn’t come along too fast, as long as it doesn’t affect their property values, as long as their kids don’t have to go to school with Black kids.
So what is the blues about, what is rock about? It’s about shit, that kind of shit.