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DVD does it right
The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966 and Blues Story

If you’re a blues fan, imagine the thrill of seeing Howlin’ Wolf live, or Magic Sam belting out his classic "All Your Love," or Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, and J.B. Lenoir in a harmonica showdown. If you’re not, consider how these performers all played a role in influencing popular music as you know it, and how special an opportunity it would be to see them perform.

Two new DVD programs add up to a visual and sonic fantasyland for blues lovers and those with an interest in formative rock and roll and R&B. They also provide a welcome challenge to the recent PBS-TV series "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues" — seven films that altogether failed to tell the music’s story or provide insight into the lives, creative or otherwise, of the people who made it.

A complaint I’ve heard from many Boston-area musicians regarding the PBS blues series is that relatively few major blues artists were interviewed or shown in performance. It’s typically the performances of the great blues men and women that offer the deepest view of their art and the passions that fuel it. The two-DVD set The American Folk Blues Festival 1962–1966 (Experience Hendrix) brims with great stage turns by Wolf, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, Sippie Wallace, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Otis Spann, Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, and that aforementioned harmonica throwdown — which, by the way, Big Mama wins. Most of them were recorded in a small TV studio in Germany while the artists were in that country on the "American Folk Blues Festival" package tours that alerted European audiences to the excitement of American blues.

Sometimes the artists appear in set pieces, so we see Sonny Boy Williamson walking past cotton bales in a fake riverfront town before he blows a few harp licks and strolls into the fictional tavern where Sunnyland Slim and Willie Dixon are holding court. And Wolf plays in an approximation of a smoky bar, after closing time, with his great guitarist Hubert Sumlin by his side. But some of the most exciting moments, like Magic Sam playing his shivery signature "All Your Love" on Earl Hooker’s guitar, take place before auditorium audiences. Otis Rush simply steps up to the microphone and sings one loud, long note that is one of the most arresting sounds ever to come from a human mouth. Then he reinforces his impact by tearing scalding notes from his guitar — playing the way Eric Clapton still wishes he could. None of these 37 performances is slack, and many of them crackle with virtuosity and grace. Even the oldest performers on the bill, the guitar innovator Johnson and the tart songbird Wallace, are in top form — which makes this rare footage all the more welcome a discovery. And there’s the mysterious and legendary Earl Hooker plying his nimble-fingered trade on the fretboard.

The American Folk Blues Festival 1962–1966 gives us a look at members of the first and second generations of electric blues, and a few of the pioneers. Another DVD, the single-disc Blues Story (Shout Factory), takes the narrative documentary approach to the music that many hardcore blues fans wish Scorsese had. ("He could have done what Ken Burns did for jazz, but he blew it," one disgusted veteran musician, who has played with Muddy Waters and other greats of the genre, recently told me, his voice dripping with indignation.) Blues Story seeks to explain the music’s evolution from the sounds of slavery to the present, providing performances and interviews with 24 artists, from the late Mississippi fife-and-drum-band leader Othar Turner to B.B. King and the contemporary juke-joint activist and songwriter Willie King. Parts of the movie run out of gas, but not when such colorful personalities as Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and R.L. Burnside are dissecting and practicing their art. Also, the testimontials of now-gone performers like Delta harp blower Willie Foster and the classic songwriter Lowell Fulson are invaluable and enlightening. This documentary by director Jay Levey was also shown on PBS, but without the backing of Volkswagen or Microsoft’s Paul Allen, it was treated like a closeted, infirm sibling of the Scorsese project by public TV. The bottom line is, it has plenty of muscle on its own.

Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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