When shot with verve and skill, so that we can feel the heat and passion of the moment, a concert film is the next best thing to being there. That's the way it is with Lightning in a Bottle, a Martin Scorsese-produced documentary that captures an extraordinary evening in February 2003 when some of the world's greatest blues musicians -- and some striving wannabes from other genres -- congregated at New York's Radio City Music Hall to celebrate an enduring American art form.
"Salute to the Blues" was billed as a 100th anniversary event, in recognition of the seminal (and perhaps apocryphal) night in 1903 when bandleader/composer W.C. Handy, stranded afield, awakened on a train station bench in Tutwiler, Miss., to the mournful strains of a guitar and a ragged local black man singing about the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad. Was this the birth of the blues? Or at least its arrival in the broader consciousness of America? Why not. Makes for a great origin-of-the-species story.
In any event, the Radio City concert that was performed a century later and gorgeously filmed by Training Day director Antoine Fuqua gives us a profound sense of how the blues has blossomed over the years -- and the far corners it has reached. The first performer on the bill, after all, is the African-born singer Angelique Kidjo, whose Caribbean-flavored ballads draw upon blues, calypso, merengue, and ska; she is followed by the redoubtable Mavis Staples, who began singing with her famous family in the 1940s, and who here belts out a dark 1928 chestnut called "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" with chilling conviction.
May and December got along just fine on this night, thank you. In one of the vivid interview clips that provide coloration and texture to the performance segments, native Mississippian David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who has obviously lived a few lyrics, tells us that he played his first party gig in 1928, when he was 13, "and drank whiskey all night"; one-third Honeyboy's age, Compton, Calif.-born Keb' Mo' follows the master's vivid "Gamblin' Man" with his own ironically updated rendition of 1937's "Love in Vain." When Ruth Brown, Staples, and sleek Natalie Cole join forces on the pointed 1939 anthem "Men Are Like Streetcars" ("... you miss one, you get another right away"), their onstage audience is one Bill Cosby, deadpanning all the way.
Blues aficionados -- and they are a highly informed, gloriously opinionated lot -- will savor the archival glimpses Fuqua inserts here and there of dearly departed giants like Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Son House (who lets us know "blues is not a plaything"), but the film's real mission is to remind us that this is living music. To that end, we behold Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, wearing a jaunty black bowler, whose achingly beautiful version of "Can't Be Satisfied" recalls his late mentor, Muddy Waters, but also a guitarist Guy himself inspired -- Jimi Hendrix. Care to catch Gatemouth Brown backstage, turning out dazzling little fiddle riffs? You got it. Want to hear saucy Ruth Brown, recovering from a stroke at 75 and burnished like mahogany, explain how she's finally found the reason she sings the blues? Listen up.
India.Arie's bold foray into "Strange Fruit," intercut with gruesome black-and-white stills of Southern lynchings, may not measure up to the heart-wrenching Billie Holiday original, and Macy Gray's version of "Hound Dog" may have you yearning for Big Mama Thornton (if not for that sneak thief Elvis Presley), but there's so much superb music in these beautifully edited 108 minutes that there's no time for disappointment -- not even when displaced-person John Fogerty moons through a tepid "Midnight Special." Take heart. The electrifying duo of Shemekia Copeland and Robert Cray are about to bring down the house with their essay on Bobby Bland's "I Pity the Fool"; the Neville Brothers, still full of sass and jambalaya, pay homage to Professor Longhair with "Big Chief"; and in the end, the magisterial B.B. King and his constant companion of the evening, Lucille, bring the big crowd to its feet with "Sweet Sixteen." The high-powered finale features King, Cray, and Bonnie Raitt on "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss," and it's almost too much. As one awed fan tells the camera: "Only word I'm gonna say is, 'Wow!'"
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