The Blues is a gigantic thing that most people (and most fans for that matter) never explore beyond the tourist areas populated by the national-touring giants of the trade. I personally started out with Hendrix, Stevie Ray, BB King, and Robert Johnson, and had to blaze my own path into the high weirdness from there.
My favorite blues– the realest stuff– are the performances that seem just a little tacky, and the singers who are too weird to be true. If I’m not a little repelled, yet totally drawn in, it’s probably not hitting the mark. For my recorded fix, I’m a huge fan of everything put out by the good people at Fat Possum, from the white-boy skronk of the Black Keys (hello, Akron!) to the offkey broken-down shambling of Bob Log III and Cedell Davis. I will make exceptions to this rule to include the transcendendental players like Guitar Slim or Robert Cray, who can help you achieve enlightenment with one bent note. But in general, the weirder the better.
Consequently I was a little afraid that Martin Scorsese would do to the Blues what he did to New York in 1863. That is, I was afraid he’d make it visceral, dirty, and cruel but then fuck it up by using electro-trance music and casting beautiful people. HA! Could I BE more wrong?
I flip on WGBH. The Blues. Onscreen, Bobby Rush is dressed in a red, blue, and gold silk brocade shirt and electric blue hip-huggers. His head sports jheri-curl. He is playing to a mixed-race audience in a bowling alley, and singing a song called “Pecked by the Right Hen.” The crowd is going apeshit. Bobby stalks the makeshift stage like a lion tamer, working the crowd. The crowd works back. Then the camera pans right, and we see the sight. A young woman in glasses and a simple dress has jumped onstage and is shaking her booty at the crowd, such booty-shaking as to make a Pastor recant. She shakes and shakes and shakes and shakes and shakes and it becomes clear that Bobby Rush is taming no lion… he’s only hoping to contain the booty. Bobby sings to the booty. Bobby talks to the booty. Bobby begs the booty for a little mercy. Bobby introduces the booty to the crowd, and the crowd hollers back. Bobbys’s shirt slithers and shimmers like it’s going to take a verse. All the while, this woman shakes her ass like it’s on hinges.
Bobby finishes the song, and we cut to church. Bobby Rush, in a nice brown suit with a gold tie, grinning and mouthing the pastor’s words as he sings a gospel song. Intercut a tour-bus interview in which Bobby Rush explains that the same people who are out on Saturday are in Church on Sunday, the only difference being to whom they are petitioning for salvation.
And that’s it. You better BELIEVE I’ll be tuning in for every remaining episode, and buying this set on DVD. The soundtrack? Ehhh, maybe, if I get tired of my Otha Turner bootlegs.
For me, it’s nice to sit in BB King’s Blues Club among velvet curtains, dine on a twenty-dollar steak and take in a show by the great Duke Robillard. It’s even okay to sit in a Texican joint in Marblehead, Massachusetts as the Cat Sass Blues Band pounds all the joy out of “Got My Mojo Working.” But goddamn it if the bowling alley isn’t the place to be. It’s what Greil Marcus called the “old, weird America,” and it do feel a bit like home.