Various Artists: While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records

Music Reviews Various Artists
Various Artists: While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records

When Chicago’s Bloodshot made its entrance with 1994’s For A Life of Sin, it was disorienting: a Midwestern country/roots/punk hybrid that had no obvious antecedents—just the hillbilly highway out of Kentucky for a feeder system. But somehow Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller had the moxie, fire and work ethic to build this unlikely indie that could.

And that “could” includes coloring outside the lines and supporting artists and iconoclasts like Ryan Adams, the Old ‘97s, Detroit Cobras, Alejandro Escovedo, Justin Townes Earle, the Waco Brothers, Neko Case—all combustive creatives who smear genres, crash beats, write with switchblades and play guitars that buzz like rusty electric razorwire.

How to celebrate creating something as iconic as Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone or Seattle’s Sub Pop Records? Lure the best of progressive roots’ new wave to cover the songs that stained their souls, demonstrating Bloodshot’s enduring resonance.

Opening with Blitzen Trapper’s thumping buskers’/camp meeting take on Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” a freewheeling euphoria rises on While No One Was Looking, suggesting passion is the glue and raw bravado tempered with innocence is the secret sauce.

Certainly Nicki Bluhm’s silvery sweetness on Ryan Adams’ busted, but not forsaken rambler’s lament “Oh My Sweet Carolina”—buoyed by the dusty harmonies of the Gramblers and a warm molasses French horn—suggests keeping one’s wonder has its advantages.
Emotions without filters seem the order. Youth’s swagger ignites Warm Soda’s punk churn of the Gore Gore Girls’ “All Grown Up,” equal parts Rockpile and the Ramones; ditto the cowpunk pogoliciousness of Chuck Prophet’s staccato lean into Andre Williams’ equalizing “Dirt.” At opposite poles Charlie Parr’s up-the-holler howl on Devil in a Woodpile’s make-do “Manifold” has that banjo-and-moonshine danger, while Interpol’s Sam Fogarino’s Casio-murk on Charlie Pickett’s “Liked It A Lot” has all the bitter malice and graphic recriminations with none of the original’s overt rage.

Tom Waits figures heavily, too. James Leg—of Black Diamond Heavies—conjures his derelict piano tramp on the Dex Romweber Duo’s “Is That You In The Blue?,” and Shakey Graves’ wavery melancholy on Wayne Hancock’s “Happy Birthday Julie” recalls “Christmas Card from A Stripper,” then The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band’s “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” crosses The Mule Variations era with Texas firestorm Ray Wylie Hubbard.
In the end, it’s jubilation mainlined, chewy nuggets bursting with flavor and foment. Each track deserves mention. Knowing Superchunk, Diarrhea Planet, Ben Kweller, Andrew Bird & Nora O’Connor, Mike Watt and the Missingmen are just a few of the other stand-outs shows why Bloodshot, two decades in, remains so compelling.

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