In celebration of the release of his new CD, ‘Hokum Blues,’ Chris sat for an interview with American Blues Scene.
Chris “Bad News” Barnes has been infusing comedy into blues music (or is it the other way around?) since he left his native Scranton, Pennsylvania, for New York City at age 17. He quickly scored a job at Tramps blues club on 15th Street, a very popular venue in the 1970s which hosted the Alligator Records roster among others. Barnes served as the warm-up act for the blues icons who played there.
As a cue for the blues performers to set up onstage at the end of his set, Barnes would improvise a song with his harmonica based on audience suggestions of a woman’s name and a household object, i.e. Alice and frying pan, “Her name was Alice, she was a girl of the land, then she hit me with a hot frying pan.” When legendary drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith told Barnes what he was doing was “hokum blues,” Barnes’ fascination with the sub-genre began.
In celebration of the release of his new CD, Hokum Blues, on VizzTone Records, Chris sat for an interview with American Blues Scene to share his observations about how his experiences working as an improvisational comic (Second City), comedy writer (Saturday Night Live), and actor (The Carol Burnett Show, Life With Bonnie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Thirty Rock) have served him well as a bluesman.
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This is no mere white boy with the blues. Barnes works in New York media, as do all his pals on board here, and with nice day jobs, they get to have lots of fun on the side. A lot of lip service is paid to hokum but this date gets down to the original, real hokum—the double entendre loaded barrelhouse blues that was meant to trick whitey with it’s sexual and drug references flying under whitey’s radar. Jumping, humping and rollicking along, this bunch knows how to keep it real but make it contemporary. Even if the moldy figs know all the songs here, this set wasn’t made for them. Selling millions of well known records that were never properly accounted for, this is a wonderful journey through the past that those who don’t require the straight and narrow will covet proudly. Just plain killer stuff you’ll find you can’t get enough of after the first taste.
A dozen tracks of complete hokum, as it clearly says on the album cover, from one of the USA’s finest hoaxers and hoary frontmen. This guy is not just a comic with a challenging sense of humor, he’s also one helluva singer/songwriter with an at times decidedly jaundiced eye on the skewed social and political world of modern America. I have to declare an interest from the very start with this offering: I absolutely love it. It makes me laugh out loud, and the sheer inescapable mastery of the full-tilt, Stax-like horny (pun intended, as Barnes would expect) musical backing makes for totally irresistible stuff.
Barnes crosses genres as easily as he reaches out to cross-dressers, straights and gays with a full-hand of delicious songs. From the opening track, “America Needs A Queen,” with its sublimely comic lyrics demanding a gay leader on top, you know where this collection is likely to take you – a rolling ride of excellent music, packed to bursting with wit and wisdom, sure-fired soul and super sounds. Religion also comes into the firing line with a marvelous number, “Westboro Baptist Blues,” that should carry a health warning along the lines of ‘Do Not Listen While Eating or Drinking’ – for fear of spraying your near neighbors with half-chomped, slurped debris.
A wonderful, fun album with a backing band that includes the likes of the late Lew Soloff on trumpet and around half of the surviving members of Blood, Sweat & Tears, among others. And as a bonus – if such was needed – this is a double CD/DVD release, so you can also watch the mayhem as it unfolds.
– Iain Patience
Chris Barnes plays his blues by planting tongue firmly in cheek, and then biting that tongue with heaping sarcasm and wit. Add in a dash of topical social commentary alongside the funky grooves and thunderous rhythmic assault and you’ve got the foundations of one of the most entertaining, if not pertinent, blues/roots releases in recent memory.
The Scranton native, who has done NEPA proud for the last 30-plus years as a successful comedian, writer, actor, club owner (he and partner Jacqui are proprietors of the successful gay bars Flaming Saddles in New York and L.A.), and all-around master performer, has just released a blues album under the moniker Bad News Barnes & The Brethren of Blues Band. The album, titled “90 Proof Truth,” is a titanic statement, both lyrically and musically – but that’s nothing new for this outspoken personality.
“I’m getting my message out there at a time when it’s so necessary,” Barnes said.