Reservation Blues 

Indigenous remain the stalwarts of Native American blues

Perhaps no major musical genre is as clearly delineated in origin as the blues. Born in the Mississippi Delta and championed by the likes of Willie Brown, Robert Johnson and Lead Belly, the blues were an outlet of expression for a social and racial class that had been (and, some would argue, still is) brutally oppressed by the ruling white class.

Since its inception and subsequent assimilation by the whole spectrum of social strata, though, the musical wellspring of human blues has been dipped into by all shades of performers. The last few decades, in fact, have produced a number of critically and commercially prominent blues musicians of a distinctly whiter shade of pale—Janis Joplin, Johnny Winters, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc.

Still, the blues seem somehow more valid when its source is a member of a legitimately disenfranchised class. So the idea of a blues band comprised of American Indians would seem like a genuine lock in terms of authenticity—after all, is there any group of people that has received a bigger shaft from American society than those who originally populated the ground we now hold so dear?

Curiously, the members of the blues band Indigenous—Mato Nanji, Wandbi, Pte and Horse—have chosen to eschew the mistreatment of American Indians as an emotional impetus for their music. Perhaps because live music rarely made its way through the reservation where they grew up, the clan band (three siblings and a cousin) from the Nakota Nation in South Dakota have instead mined their inspiration from a variety of established musicians—Santana, the late great Texas guitarist Vaughn—that they were exposed to by Greg Zephier, the father of Nanji, Wandbi and Pte, and himself a member of the ’60s blues-rock band The Vanishing Americans.

It may be completely out of line for a white music lover to suggest that Indigenous would be better served by tapping into an ancestral mainline of angst to fuel their music, but dammit, that’s exactly what I think after listening to Circle, their latest release. Produced by longtime Vaughn collaborator Doyle Bramhall, the songs of Circle have a mostly derivative feel, with the ghost of Vaughn present almost everywhere and not-so-slight nods to Santana, Big Head Todd and gulp Hootie and the Blowfish as well.

The main reason I feel that Indigenous is selling themselves a bit short in their approach is that the band flashes some serious and sustained brilliance on the album. Guitarist and singer Nanji is clearly in possession of some monster chops in both disciplines, as evidenced by “Evolution Revolution,” an instrumental number featuring Nanji’s clean, searing guitar licks countered by Doyle Bramhall II’s fuzzy, sinister tones, and “The Moon Is Shining,” a beautiful, lurching acoustic ballad in which Nanji drops his pop voice in favor of a revealing croon.

The rest of the band is more than adequate (percussionist Horse steals “Rest of My Days,” a grooving guitar-and-percussion ripper), and their reputation as a road band is growing by leaps and bounds. As a young group (none are older than their mid-20s), Indigenous has a lot of time to grow, and the Honor the Earth tour offers us locals a chance to watch that growth in progress.
Indigenous plays as part of the Honor the Earth Tour, Wednesday, Oct. 4 at the Adams Center. Tickets are $30 reserved and $25 general admission. Doors open at 6:30 PM.

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