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
Mike Figgis’ Red, White & Blues explores the ’60s British blues boom, breaking up the parade of how-it-all-happened interviews with new, live-in-the-studio performances by Van Morrison, Lulu, Tom Jones and a Jeff Beck–led band. Jones and Lulu are more capable R&B singers than commonly thought, but the results are erratic, making the soundtrack an uneven affair.
Clint Eastwood’s Piano Blues blurs the lines between jazz and blues, with knuckle-busting vintage performance clips — Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole, Oscar Peterson, Professor Longhair, and two fistfuls of boogie-woogie pianists — that more than make up for the all-too-hoary stories and some questionable choices of interviewees, which means the otherwise eminently playable soundtrack severely tapers off when you get to the newly recorded material.
The DVD version of the series sports three hours of additional material, divided between the usual “making of” footage, artist and director interviews, director commentaries, and at least 10 performances that didn’t make the final cuts. Owing to the morass of licensing rights, the individual film soundtracks and the individual artist albums are split between Sony/Legacy and Hip-O/Universal, with the latter getting the five-CD box set. This 116-track package has to be considered in all but the squarest circles as the holiday gift of the year. Cool photos and solid notes — albeit some odd discrepancies between the sessionography and the liners and a 10-year gap from 1971 to 1981 (!) — aside, the best thing about this set is that it fills in most of the innumerable holes in the series’ history: Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Slim Harpo, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Blind Willie McTell, Guitar Slim and many more are present and accounted for.
Edited by Peter Guralnick, Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren and Christopher John Farley, the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues hardcover anthology (Amistad/HarperCollins, $27.95) fills in most of the remaining holes, balancing vintage pieces from such black literary giants as Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes with material composed specifically for the project. This roughly 300-page opus comes packed with choice photos and is more than a bit uneven, but the righteous stuff — the Mike Bloomfield on the road with Big Joe Williams excerpt from Me and Big Joe; Robert Palmer’s account of witnessing Howlin’ Wolf, then age 55, performing live in 1965; James Marshall (let’s-get-drunk-and-truck “party” blues), John Edgar Wideman (Sterling Plumpp’s poetry), Stanley Booth (Furry Lewis’ day gig sweeping the Memphis streets), and former J. Geils Band front man Peter Wolf’s
“I used to let Muddy Waters and his band stay at my
apartment” segments — is well worth the wade-through. It’s also the obvious holiday gift for everyone on your list who already owns that five-CD box set.
As for those 12 single-artist albums, Sony/Legacy has Son House, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, while Hip-O/Universal has J.B. Lenoir, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band. Each is a fine introduction to the artist’s oeuvre and, in the case of the more rock-oriented acts, heavily skewed toward the blues side of their repertoires.
So, the blues . . . One of the fundamental building blocks of American music . . . The soundtrack to countless beer commercials . . . Not-so-mute testimony to the enduring power of artistic expression from people who were living in hell and were told they were going to hell, too. And, as such, an inspiration to us all.