By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Sometime between voting to destroy — then spend billions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars reconstructing — a foreign nation and passing not one but two tax cuts that mostly benefit the richest 1 percent of Americans, the U.S. Congress decreed 2003 to be the Year of the Blues. (Insert your own joke here.) Tossing a little more irony into the fire, on consecutive evenings several weeks back, the (partially) government-financed Public Broadcasting System aired Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, featuring seven films by as many directors.
If you missed any or all of the episodes, there’s no need for blueswailing. The entire series was recently issued as either a DVD or VHS box set. These DVD/VHS packages join the five-CD box set, the seven films’ soundtrack albums, the 12 discs by individual artists, and the hardcover book that landed at retail a month before the initial broadcast dates. It’s a deluge of blues that’s destined to leave aficionados and casual listeners alike drowning on dry land.
Each of these items has its own merits and demerits, as might be expected when anyone tries to shoehorn about 80 years of recording history into individually wrapped slices. Instead of a linear historical approach Ă la Ken Burns’ 2002 Jazz series, Scorsese opted for the “let’s have seven blind men each grab a part of the elephant” method. Which is fine, inasmuch as blues is like cooking collard greens; because the form is so basic, it allows for an almost infinite number of individual interpretations. Scorsese’s own Feel Like Going Home kicked off the series. Directed with a surprising minimum of visual flair and hosted by young black modern bluesman Corey Harris, it connects the cane fife and marching drums of the recently deceased Otha Turner and the freeform modal blues of John Lee Hooker to the same West African roots that nurture the similar yet dissimilar music made by Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure. Great if you don’t know this stuff; curiously flat if you do.
The accompanying soundtrack album fares better — none of the interview segments, all background info confined to the liner notes, and all full-length performances versus abbreviated clips — highlighted by juke-joint veterans Willie King & the Liberators’ scarifying live rendition of “Terrorized,” a superb modern blues that contrasts the events of 9/11 with a lifetime’s worth of inhumanity.
Wim Wenders’ The Soul of a Man focuses on Blind Willie Johnson, whose music straddles gospel and blues; idiosyncratic country bluesman Skip James; and Chicago blues cult hero J.B. Lenoir, whose premature 1966 death precluded his reaching a wider audience. Wenders’ hand-cranked, black-and-white re-enactments are gorgeous, and that freshly unearthed, mid-’60s home footage of J.B. Lenoir is truly eye-popping, but his decision to repeatedly interrupt all this with modern performers covering the trio’s tunes bears wildly uneven fruit. It’s as if Wenders doesn’t trust the power of the original art, which has already transcended time and space. For example, Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” figures prominently in Ghost World. When an awestruck Thora Birch asks Steve Buscemi’s record geek for “another record like that,” he truthfully responds, “There aren’t any other records like that.”
Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner’s vibrantly photographed The Road to Memphis contrasts the world of blues elder statesman B.B. King with that of still-on-the-chitlin’-circuit Bobby Rush. The latter may be a journeyman, but his is the far more interesting story. Yet this all gets derailed by the need to detail the admittedly significant role Memphis played in the music’s history, and the result is rather schizophrenic. The soundtrack album is tipped more toward the historical side and holds together better.
Charles Burnett — the series’ sole black director — contributes Warming by the Devil’s Fire, and it’s far and away the best film per se. Drawn from Burnett’s own experience as a young boy whipsawed between the religious and the profane members of his family, it’s more like a short story with the blues as an almost flesh-and-blood character. Witness this deathless dialogue: “I can’t tell our mother that you’ve taken this boy to juke joints, so I’ve got to lie to her. Now you see how the devil works?” (The soundtrack is a mixed bag of classic female blues vocalists, jazz, gospel, and country and urban bluesmen.)
Marc Levin’s Godfathers and Sons attempts to link hip-hop and the blues via Public Enemy front man Chuck D.’s affection for Muddy Waters’ generally reviled psychedelic-blues experiment, Electric Mud. While the two styles certainly share far more DNA than is generally acknowledged, this one album is just too thin a thread on which to hang a thesis. And the post-WWII indie labels’ role in the music, as well as the tectonic shift from solo acoustic performers to the electric-band sounds of ’50s Chicago, gets overshadowed in the process. But then we wouldn’t get the footage of the now mostly jazz ’n’ session pros who played on Electric Mud reunited in the studio with Chuck D. and Common etc., in another attempt to connect wit da kidz, which is, after all, the same role the indie-label crew chiefs played the first time around. The soundtrack corrects the historical balance.