Tuesday, September 9, 2003

PBS swings into the blues

Along with movies, Scorsese
and other filmmakers will
give their take on the music

Did you know Congress has proclaimed this is the Year of the Blues? A century has passed since W.C. Handy became the first composer to publish a blues work, "St. Louis Blues."

Robert Santelli, director of the Seattle multimedia attraction Experience Music Project, and sponsor Volkswagen celebrated the blues by staging a massive February concert at New York City's Radio City Music Hall featuring more than 40 performers, ranging from veterans to emerging talents.

Since the late 1960s, the music that originally served as an expression of joy and pain for disenfranchised Southern blacks has been transformed. Once the musicians migrated to the cities of the northwest, particularly Chicago, the electrified, urban sound caught the ear of British rock 'n' roll musicians. They, in turn, introduced the music to white audiences, who as baby boomers favor this sort of hybrid sound. (There are enough blues-rock bands in Honolulu to fill out an annual blues festival and, soon, the occasional "blues cruise.")

This relatively large constituency can look forward to the second half of the Year of the Blues celebration, starting this month with a plethora of blues reissues and soundtracks from an upcoming series of films, executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, to be aired on PBS.

Compared with Ken Burns' "Jazz," Scorsese and his filmmakers aren't trying to give the American public a single voice with its own historical overview of the blues. Each film (airing on consecutive nights starting Sept. 28), by Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Richard Pearce, Charles Burnett, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis and Clint Eastwood, offers each director's impressionistic vision of what the blues means to him.

And, of course, there's the music. In a massive marketing move to build anticipation for the PBS series, Universal Music and Columbia/Legacy are simultaneously releasing the seven soundtrack albums, a five-CD boxed set and 12 individual artist compilations today. (A single-CD sampler called "The Best of the Blues" was released two weeks ago and is reviewed separately.)

THE SOUNDTRACK albums are probably the most interesting of the bunch. Some, like Scorsese's "Feel Like Going Home," Levin's "Godfathers & Sons" and Wenders' "The Soul of a Man," include new recordings by contemporary musicians performing their versions of blues classics. Wenders' film explores the lives of his favorite bluesmen -- Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir -- with rare archival footage and covers by such noted artists as Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Cassandra Wilson, Los Lobos and Bonnie Raitt.

Scorsese's film pays homage both to the early Mississippi Delta blues and its roots in West Africa. The new performances range from Corey Harris, Taj Mahal, Keb' Mo' and Othar Turner to Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Habib Koité.

Marc Levin's film sounds intriguing, as Public Enemy's Chuck D and Chess Records heir Marshall Chess examine the crucial Chicago scene, with three new contributions by PE, Common and D's side project the Electric Mudcats performing a hip-hop version of Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy."

Waters is also one of the 12 artists who are part of the easy-to-digest compilations, all featuring previously released material by Eric Clapton, B.B. King, J.B. Lenoir, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers Band, Bessie Smith, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Son House, Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal and Robert Johnson.

As far as sales goes for all of these recordings, we'll see how effective "blues power" will be to the TV-watching public come Sept. 28.

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