Some of the brightest stars of modern blues appeared Oct. 27 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall in Highway 61. The performance was billed as a “scripted presentation, theatrically and musically oriented.” I have a hit-or-miss knowledge of the blues, combined with passionate likes and dislikes, so when Highway 61 promised “a multimedia affair of music, dialogue, and the visual arts” that would delve into the origins of this unique American art form, I was eager to go and expand my knowledge.
It turned out, though, that Highway 61 was not about the musicrather, it was the living music itself. But sometimes that’s the best way to learn.
True, there was a short movie at the start. Yes, there were desultory slides that appeared at intervals on either side of the stage, but they came with no explanatory labels. What’s more, the photos were fuzzy, and the projection screens were horizontally striated. It was difficult to decipher exactly what you were seeing, and downright impossible if you were sitting in the side seats of the auditorium. Some multimedia!
Furthermore, the so-called narrative fizzled out after the initial presentation. The audience was left with the kind of jokes, kidding around, and general commentary that one expects in a nightclub. Which raises the question: Why engage in the pretense that this was anything more than a fabulous entertainment?
But who would have wanted to hear a bunch of didactic stuff, when they could simply listen to the music? It seemed to me as if everybody already knew the words to every song. Audience members hummed along with the music, tittered at little asides, and even laughed at jokes before performers had a chance to deliver the punch line. From a mere couple of chords, they could identify a song that dated back to the ’30s. These people were serious fanswhich only reinforces the degree to which more expository material might have been perceived as condescending.
Taking as their theme the diffusion of blues along Route 61, which meanders along the Mississippi River through the Mississippi Delta, three groups were selected to represent an aspect of blues history. The Blind Boys From Alabama, featuring Clarence Fountain, revealed the relationship between gospel music and the blues. The rest of the evening was split between two electric, Chicago-style blues performers: celebrated guitarist Buddy Guy and harmonicist Billy Boy Arnold. Of course, the evening’s billing raises yet another a question: If Highway 61sought to trace the development of the blues, why didn’t the producers include a musician to represent the traditional folk blues of Robert Johnson and Bukka White?
The Blind Boys From Alabama originally met at the Talladega Institute for the Blind, where they formed an informal musical group to perform gospel harmony for the troops during World War II. The singers followed each other onto the stage, train-style, with each man placing a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. This entry in itself dramatized a whole story about trust and shared faitha story that was reflected in their music as well. Their voices blended as one instrument, a mighty organ played with all stops pulled out. The texture of their silken harmonies was threaded by Clarence Fountain’s growls, groans, and impassioned vibrato. It was high-energy and high-volume all the way.
Billy Boy Arnold offered quite a contrast. Dressed in a conservative blue blazer and gray flannels, the harmonica player was the embodiment of cool, but his music was cookin’. He could make the harmonica dance, but his velvety vocals were more than equal to his impressive instrumental talents. Arnold was at his best singing songs that depended on wry humor to convey a witty message. Without a doubt, he was the smoothest, most urbane of the performers, representing the R&B end of the blues spectrum.
Arnold might have been stylish and sophisticated, but it was headliner Buddy Guy who transformed the huge, impersonal Jackson Hall into an intimate nightclub. Like the other featured musicians a veteran performer, he knew how to engage the audience, teasing us, directing us to sing along, then scolding us when we sang out of key: “I know you all can do better. This is Nashville!”
Not only is Guy a master bluesman and entertainer, he’s also a dynamic showman. In one number, he ran the gamut of human emotions: He sang full-blast falsetto, then became so subdued that you could scarcely hear him as he whispered, “Feels like rain.” It was as a guitarist, however, that he was at his most flamboyant. He ran up and down the strings at breakneck pace, exploding into great flurries of notes and vibrant pulsations.
The musicians in the Highway 61 bandwhich backed both Guy and Billy Boy Arnoldwere all consummate professionals. In particular, keyboardist Tony Zamagni was especially outstanding, playing with both passion and precision. Scott Holt, a Nashville local, received an enthusiastic reception for his histrionic rendition of “There’s a Red House Over Yonder.” Undoubtedly, his technical bravado on the guitar outshone his singing abilities.
As sheer entertainment, the evening’s performances could not be beat. There was obviously little need for any introductory course in Blues 101, at least for many in this well-informed crowd. That said, why did the producers think it necessary to put a multimedia educational spin on the production and to package it, somewhat pretentiously, as a “cultural experience”? Frankly, this kind of music does not show to its best advantage in the bland void of TPAC. Next time I want to hear the blues, I’ll seek out a spot where the musicians feel more at home.
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