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Lightning in a Bottle

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According to the press kit that accompanied this CD set, it’s the year of the blues, baby. As if the blues are restricted to a particular time and place, right? Lightning in a Bottle is a followup to the Grammy award winning box set called Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues. This time around, the double-CD set is the soundtrack to a concert film called (you guessed it!) Lightning in a Bottle. Director Antonie Fuqua (he of Training Day and King Arthur) captured performances at the “Salute to the Blues” concert held in February, 2003 at Radio City Music Hall.

The concert – and the CD set – feature a rogue’s gallery of blues’ greatest stars, like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Ruth Brown, Mavis Staples, Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughn, and many more. The film was to be released October 15, but I must admit I haven’t seen many signs of it (of course, I live in the northwoods of Wisconsin, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised). In any event, the CD features 27 songs that showcase five generations of blues music and it is worth it simply for the historical retrospective. Beyond that, of course, the music rocks.

The house band kicked and they were joined by a host of others who get their licks on various songs. As Fuqua described the experience: “We transformed Radio City Music Hall into a juke joint.” While it would be interesting to see the documentary simply to see all these musicians on the same stage together, ultimately everybody’s there for the music. It starts with Angelique Kidjo on “Zelie,” a powerful cry about the voice “they couldn’t take away.” Mavis Staples launches into “See that My Grave is Kept Clean,” and then David “Homeboy” Edwards sings about how he’s a “Gamblin’ Man.” Natalie Cole teams with Mavis Staples and Ruth Brown on “Men are Just Like Street Cars” (if you miss one, another will come along), and Buddy Guy sings “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” The first disc takes a melancholy turn with india.arie’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” but then closes on a pounding note with Macy Gray’s “Hound Dog” and John Fogerty singing the “Midnight Special.”

Yes sir, you heard that right: that’s the first disc. The second opens with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown doing the “Okie Dokie Stomp,” Bonnie Raitt singing “Coming Home,” Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes wailing that “The Sky is Crying,” and Buddy Guy on “First Time I Met the Blues.” It also features The Neville Brothers, Shemekia Copeland, Robert Cray, Solomon Burke, B.B. King, and more. It wraps up with Chuck D. and the Fine Arts Militia doing a little anti-war riff, transforming a John Lee Hooker classic into “(No) Boom Boom” while King closes the show with “Sweet Sixteen.”

It’s music that is raw and rough, dark and gritty, yet also occasionally playful, sometimes poignant, and always resolutely moving. It’s the blues, and yes, it is a bit like trying to catch lightning in a bottle to capture some of the emotional (and personal) essence of the blues in recorded form. As Martine Scorsese noted, the concert – and the resulting documentary and CD – was designed to “celebrate the musicians and the songwriters responsible for creating the blues – the influence of which is still felt in much of contemporary music, from rhythm and blues to rock n’ roll and hip-hop.” In that regard, it was a rousing celebration. All net proceeds from the film, the CD, and the upcoming DVD release will be given to the Blues Music Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting blues musicians and their heirs (since in many instances the original blues musicians saw very little money). Which makes it even better: not only can you “celebrate” the blues, but you can offer a bit of support to those who made it all possible to boot.

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About Bill Wallo