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on 5 July 2009
Bjorn Berge was born into poverty as the youngest of eight children. When both his parents died from the consequences of cholera, the 12 year-old and his siblings were forced to look out for themselves, and that's how the kid wound up in a car factory, working double shifts, but stubbornly practising on his battered, second hand acoustic guitar which he'd bought for five dollars. His mentor was a certain Louisiana Slim, a legend of whom we know next to nothing... Wait, wait, this nonsense has gotta end. As far as I know, Berge had a normal youth in Norway, where people are as likely to buy blues albums as they're gonna be fans of Fela Kuti. It just doesn't make sense, you know. Still, Berge emerged fully-fledged from the underground in the late 90s, with looks that make him a dead ringer for some guy in Biohazard, but a preoccupation for acoustic folk blues. Like on his next album, 2004's St. Slide, it's obvious that Berge's not only fond of the personal form of expression that blues is, but also rock, as he picks songs from acts as diverse as Jethro Tull (a thoroughly changed "Locomotive Breath") and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (a frenetic, exhausting romp through "Give It Away"). By consequence, blues purists better beware, as this Norwegian action figure doesn't seem to give a single crap about conformity and prefers to dress up his songs with un-pure details. Much like R.L. Burnside's 2000 album Wish I Was heaven Sitting Down, Berge's album offers a broader sound palette, coupling the authentic to the modern and the analogue to the digital. As a result, opening song "Cypress Grove" (originally by Skip James) is not only propelled by harmonica, 12-string guitar and Berge's commanding baritone, but also subtle layers of programming. This all works fine on the quieter tracks - the pretty "Some Days" gets an even wearier, late night-vibe because of it - yet it can become a bit overbearing during already dense tracks like "Funky Face." Further material to annoy the Alan Lomax in every listener comes with "Wishful Thinking," a bare-boned blues-rocker with BIG drums that has more in common with Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion than folk blues; and an almost unrecognisable, funkified version of Robert Johnson's "Travelling Riverside Blues" (yep, that's the one with the legendary sexual innuendo). Despite the fact that Berge usually gets away with his non-conformism (regardless of the angelic backing vocals of Kristin Berglund (Scandinavia's very own Emmylou Harris?) "Angel Band" remains a bit bland), the tracks I kept turning to where the ones he didn't tamper with: the moody "Heather," the speeding fingerpickin' fest of "Illustrated Man" and the Tony Joe White-style stomp of "Ride On" that shows that Berge has an understanding of blues music and maintains his credibility when he's left on his own, with feet-stomping rhythms and his Takamine guitar. While it lacks the spark and consistency of a great album, Illustrated Man has the Henry Rollins of blues performers expand his horizon with dominantly successful results.
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