A Happy Blues Story

Owen MaercksKinds of Blue (Feeding Tube, 2019)

I wish I’d noted the DJ’s name, because I know firsthand how gratifying it is to hear you’ve turned someone on to something new. So to whomever was on-air at KALX that evening — the midnight of a Saturday/Sunday transition, just a few weeks ago, I think — thanks.

That show replayed an interview with Owen Maercks that was probably conducted in 2019. Maercks, a guitarist living in the East Bay, had come out of musical retirement to record a blues record with quite a cast: local giants Henry Kaiser, Larry Ochs, Scott Amendola, and Plunderphonics creator John Oswald. Maercks clearly hung out with the right people. He came across as intelligent and engagaing, and the one track I heard (I surrendered to sleep shortly after) was bright, springy excitement. I promptly bought the album.

Until now, Maercks’ sparse discography included only one record as a leader, released in 1978. Much like Duane Kuiper’s lone home run, that isolated album was enough of a story to bring Maercks some notoriety years later. Teenage Sex Therapist was reissued by Feeding Tube Records in 2014, generating some overdue press for Maercks. Here’s an example, if you can tolerate SFGate’s smothering advertising. Even better, that album includes Ochs and Oswald and especially Kaiser, who’s been Maercks’ compatriot for decades — making Kinds of Blue a reunion of sorts.

Whereas that first album was rock, informed by punk and no-wave but sounding like neither, Kinds of Blue is rooted in blues, with Maercks’ low, growly singing invoking hot sunlight on lush Southern riverbanks. It’s a twisted blues, though. The opening instrumental, “Wild Time,” features a time-signature glitch as a hook and a dive-bombing Kaiser solo.

Kaiser’s sonic webspinning appears throughout the album. (Maercks takes solos as well, speaking the same psychedelic language.) And Ochs, on the folky “Beautiful to Me,” revels in retro rock-‘n’-roll blasts crinkled with skronk.

“Beautiful to Me” is also fun for its giddy, absurd lyrics (“I don’t care what the manatees say, you’re beautiful to me.”) “Burnin'” is rich in a different way, telling an epic, vague story about “the burnin'” in Saturn, Alabama (a nod to Sun Ra). As on Therapist, Maercks displays a knack for imaginative lyrical themes and a sense of humor.

Released solely on vinyl, Kinds of Blue‘s two sides are named “Inside” and “Outside,” and the descriptions are accurate. “Inside” has plenty of adventure; in fact, every track mentioned above is on that side. “Outside” rockets immediately to distant orbits with the dissonant, thorny “Iceland Boogie.” That side also includes two of the album’s three covers. One is a Picasso-filter version of “Blue Monk” — big fun. The other is “Wrong,” an obscure song by 1960s bluemsan Robert Pete Williams that starts out spare but ignites into a groove that provokes some of the most heated soloing and singing on the album. It’s not to be missed.

Kinds of Blue is bluesy, noisy, outside-y, and just plain fun. I’m happy that Maercks got back on the map, and I’m also grateful for the DJs out there who keep the spirit of college radio alive.

Feeding Tube is on Bandcamp, but to find Kinds of Blue, you’ll need to visit their website.