“It’s the alternative approach to the history of blues,” says filmmaker Marc Levin, hyping the PBS mini-series Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. “The orthodox approach is the Ken Burns’ Jazz approch. Which is great. But this is a much more impressionistic, passionate and director-driven approach. It’s not just a history trip.”
Indeed. The week-long series is not out to be a comprehensive history of classic American music. Instead, it goes for the personal touch, with seven directors — including Levin, Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis and Scorsese himself — divvying up the turf based on geography, history and personal interest. Figgis, for example, handles English blues. Clint does piano players. Levin tackles Chicago’s Chess Records.
That wide-ranging approach is reflected in the plethora of CDs released with the series — 25 in all, including seven episode soundtracks, a dozen featured-artist compilations, a single-disc overview and a whopping five-CD box set. Who has the time to sort through all that? Well, I do. And I did — so you don’t have to. Here’s my guide to The Blues.
Each episode of the series has its own soundtrack CD starring a cast of old favourites and introducing new material. And each one is excellent. My favourites, in order:
The Soul Of A Man
DIRECTOR: Wim Wenders, the German auteur who directed Buena Vista Social Club.
CONCEPT: Wenders traces the lives of three lesser-known bluesmen and their continuing influence on today’s scene.
CAST: Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir, who supply one classic track each.
INTRODUCING: Over an hour of superb updated blues covers from Beck, Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt and others.
Red, White and Blues
DIRECTOR: Mike Figgis, the English filmmaker best known for Leaving Las Vegas.
CONCEPT: Blues started in the U.S., but it certainly didn’t end there. Figgis follows the sound to England, where it inspired the likes of John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.
CAST: A solid mix of American legends (Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles) and British rockers (Cream, Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac).
INTRODUCING: Several gritty sides recorded during a jam session between Beck and — believe it or not — Tom Jones. Sadly, Van Morrison, who takes part on film, does not appear.
Godfathers and Sons
DIRECTOR: New York documentarian Marc Levin, who got his start as an apprentice on the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter.
CONCEPT: Levin revisits Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, home to Muddy Waters and an influence on everyone from The Rolling Stones to Chuck D.
CAST: All the Chicago greats — Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Etta James and more — along with followers from Bob Dylan to Public Enemy.
INTRODUCING: The ElecktiK Mud Kats, a reunion of the oldsters from Waters’ Electric Mud band, with Chuck D and Common on vocals and members of The Roots adding flavour.
Feel Like Going Home
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese, whose musical credits include directing The Band’s The Last Waltz and working on the Woodstock film.
CONCEPT: Fittingly, Scorsese kicked off the series by tracing the roots of the blues from the Mississippi Delta back to Africa.
CAST: A crop of Delta kings like Robert Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly and Charley Patton, along with African greats like Ali Farka Touré.
INTRODUCING: Singer-guitarist Willie King and cane fife wiz Otha Turner, who contribute a few cool cuts.
Warming By The Devil’s Fire
DIRECTOR: Charles Burnett, an African-American filmmaker often likened to Spike Lee.
CONCEPT: Using the fictional narrative of a boy visiting his Southern relatives, Burnett examines the battle of wills between the sacred and the profrane in blues.
CAST: The devilishly good Ma Rainey (See See Rider), Bessie Smith (Muddy Water), Elmore James (Dust My Broom) and others.
INTRODUCING: One haunting new track by contemporary bluesman Stephen James Taylor.
The Road to Memphis
DIRECTOR: Richard Pearce, whose early credits include work on Woodstock and the Bob Dylan doc Don’t Look Back.
CONCEPT: Pearce goes upriver, following the blues from the Delta to Beale Street in Memphis.
CAST: Memphis icons like B.B. King — the original Beale Street Blues Boy — and his old pal Bobby (Blue) Bland, along with former Sun artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Rosco Gordon.
INTRODUCING: Cuts from road warrior Bobby Rush, a little gospel and — best of all — a raucous version of Killing Floor by Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin and former New York Dolls singer David Johansen.
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood, who isn’t as out of place as he seems — he did make the Charlie Parker biopic Bird, after all.
CONCEPT: Pretty much what you’d figure. Jazz buff and pianist Clint focuses on the ivory-ticklers.
CAST: Everyone from Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Fats Domino and Pinetop Perkins.
INTRODUCING: New recordings by swamp master Dr. John and math-jazz icon Dave Brubeck, along with an ancient unissued Jimmy Yancey side.
Several compilations in the artists series are worthy of consideration, though hardly essential. In order, check out:
Often mistaken by listeners for a woman because of his high voice, Chicago singer-guitarist Lenoir was one of the more topical artists in the ’50s and ’60s, with cuts like Korea Blues. There’s nothing new on this 15-song set, but good Lenoir collections are hard to come by, making this is a worthwhile buy.
How important is Son House? Put it this way — the Delta singer-guitarist influenced Robert Johnson. And while this 14-cut compilation doesn’t have anything you can’t find elsewhere, no record collection is complete without House classics like Death Letter, Preachin’ Blues and John the Revelator.
New York singer-guitarist Mahal has been playing the natch’l blues alive since the ’60s. This solid hour-long collection has most of his best and best-known cuts, from the stinging Statesboro Blues and the groovy She Caught The Katy to the laid-back Corrina and the soothing Fishin’ Blues.
This has gotta be the 10,000th Clapton best-of album. But an emphasis on rarer material — like early cuts with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and a track from the London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions — keep it from being too predictable.
Sure, he’s a contemporary guitar god. But if you’re a fan, you’ve already got this (save for a couple of unissued studio jams that don’t justify the price). And if you’re a newbie, there are way better compilations out there.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Ditto Hendrix, except the unissued track is a live version of Mary Had A Little Lamb.
Robert Johnson / Bessie Smith / B.B. King / Muddy Waters / The Allman Brothers Band / Keb’ Mo’
It’s not that these artists are unworthy. Far from it — they’re all legends of the blues. (OK, maybe not Keb’ Mo’.) And it’s not that these discs are lousy. They’re all decent best-ofs that could serve fairly well as introductory primers for newcomers. Mostly, though, they consist of material that can already be found on readily available reissues and superior compilations. And the lack of bonus tracks and other goodies makes them easily ignorable.
You have two other ways to get The Blues, depending on the thickness of your wallet. For those on a budget, there’s the single-disc Best Of The Blues, with 21 tracks that span the generations from Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters to Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt to Susan Tedeschi. For those who want to go whole hog, there’s A Musical Journey, a 116-song box set that distills the series down to five fairly manageable discs. But don’t come crying the blues to me when you get your credit-card bill.