Bauer’s lost blues 

Behind the club, Judah Bauer steps out of the bright circle of light cast from a buzzy mercury lamp and into the shadows. With a stocking cap pulled down low and his hands jammed deep in the pockets of his jean jacket, his hunched posture is more that of a squatter punk than a blues guitar hero.

But the guitar god yolk never really fit that well onto Bauer anyway. As a sideman to Jon Spencer, Bauer has forged a career from complementing the bandleader’s over-the-top blues howl. When he started up his own scrappy side project, 20 Miles, Bauer’s spin on sloppy, low-rent electric blues was well done, but it didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone.

“In the beginning I was really intrigued by the Mississippi thing,” Bauer says. “That was the reason I started this band, to play that music and really understand it. And I was into people like R.L. Burnside and the surviving legends. But I guess I’m over it in a lot of ways.”

The latest from 20 Miles, Life Doesn’t Rhyme, is definitely over the Mississippi thing. Bauer eschews the retrospective juke-joint riffage for a collection of dark rock — much more in the vein of mid-period Stones and solo Frank Black than Sonny Boy Williamson.

“I will always love blues music,” Bauer says, “but lately I think I can write songs that are about who I am and not have a style that dictates what my songs sounds like. There is only so far I can go with writing blues songs before it is just copying. I needed something else. When I got away from writing blues I could think about what I sound like and what I have to say. Which is really what the blues guys are doing anyway, using music as a personal weather report of the day. I definitely want to stay in that tradition, but because of who I am and the music in my past it is going to sound a lot different.”

Life Doesn’t Rhyme showcases the music in Bauer’s musical history with dark rockers (“Barely Breathing,” “Easy Living”) and throaty ballads (“Gypsy Babe,” “Drown the Whole World”). Even though there are occasions when Bauer’s lyrics retread some well-worn rock-speak (“I wanna be standing like a bridge over water … I’m your back door man, try to understand,” etc.), Life Doesn’t Rhyme shows Bauer has gained a lot of distance on the bluesy power-riffing of his pedigree. Most importantly, Life Doesn’t Rhyme finds Bauer stepping out of Spencer’s tall shadow and becoming a formidable songwriter in his own right.

“Most of the stuff I’ve done has been the music first and then kind of wrote the songs over riffs,” Bauer says. “I did this backwards though. I decided what these songs were going to be about and I fit a cool arrangement around those ideas.”

The ideas hit tape with Liam Watson at the recently fashionable London hot spot, Toerag Studios. The studio is home to the recently en vogue garage set, including Holly Golightly, the Greenhorns, the Kills and the White Stripes. When the list of bands that have patronized Toerag enters the conversation, Bauer responds diplomatically with a wry smile. After all, he was paying homage to dirty electric blues a decade before garage became a buzzword.

“I guess a lot of those bands just figured out how to make money off it,” Bauer says. “Maybe some of them have a pop element too, and we don’t have any interest in pop. With a band like the White Stripes, the culture just kind of caught up to what they are doing. Where ten years ago, when we were doing a lot of the same kind of thing, it was completely unacceptable and we were really outsiders.”

Sour grapes?

“I’m doin’ fine,” Bauer laughs. “Maybe I take a little more integrity over a little more money, but I’m just doin’ fine.”


See 20 Miles at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit) with the Finer Things (formerly known as Bogue), Saturday, Nov. 15. Call 313-961-4668 for more information.

Nate Cavalieri is an itinerant critic for Metro Times. E-mail

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