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The Best of Blues In a 'Bottle'

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page WE41

RUTH BROWN called it "a survivor's club" -- 50 great artists gathered at Radio City Music Hall on Feb. 7, 2003, for a once-in-a-lifetime "Salute to the Blues," a genre that had itself survived a full century since W.C. Handy found himself stranded at a train station in Tutwiler, Miss., mesmerized by the mournful strains of a musician playing his guitar with a knife and singing about a local spot where two railroads crossed. Handy, a trained musician and composer, called it "the weirdest music I'd ever heard," and while he didn't actually "father" the blues (he wasn't even the first to publish music in the blues form), he did transform the music of rural Southern blacks into a dominant force in American music.

That story, that evolution, that on-going presence is celebrated in "Lightning in a Bottle," a concert documentary produced by Martin Scorsese (who produced the seven-part "The Blues" for PBS in 2003, the congressionally designated Year of the Blues) and directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "King Arthur"). It's a vibrant celebration dominated by the performances of living legends (B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Odetta), singers whose blues roots were framed as rhythm and blues (Ruth Brown, Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke, the Neville Brothers), disciplined descendants (Keb' Mo', Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, as well as Steven Tyler and Joe Perry embodying Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee") and protest progeny like Chuck D and the Fine Arts Militia, whose raucous recasting of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" as an antiwar anthem exemplifies the music's ongoing malleability.

Bonnie Raitt performs with blues icon B.B. King in the concert film "Lightning in a Bottle." (Paul Brissman -- Sony Pictures Classics)

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Pianist Dr. John, part of a first-rate house band that includes Keb' Mo', Levon Helm and the event's musical director, Steve Jordan, marvels at one point: "Looks like y'all hired the phone book . . . just looked up 'Blues' in the Yellow Pages."

The music's history (and social context) is told through a loosely structured, necessarily condensed chronology that mostly uses concert footage augmented by interviews, rehearsals, backstage encounters and archival film of such pioneers as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Son House and Hooker, exuding astonishing power and charisma even in grainy black-and-white. It's a narrative of roots and branches, tracing a journey that begins in Africa with Angelique Kidjo's "Zelie," a traditional Togo chant, comes to ground in the Deep South's Delta and spins off to Texas and the urban (and electric) energies of Memphis and Chicago.

Rural roots are exemplified by 89-year-old David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who played his raw, rough-hewn "Gamblin' Man" for the legendary Robert Johnson in the late '20s; Keb' Mo' essays Johnson's "Love in Vain" while Staples brings an eerie moan to Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and the stately Odetta protests the "Jim Crow Blues." The sociopolitical aspect of the blues is reinforced by India.Arie's plaintive reading of the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit," underscored by stark projections of Southern lynchings, as well as Chuck D's frenetic anti-war update on Hooker's "Boom Boom."

Love, in vain or otherwise, provides another rich, occasionally ribald subtext, from Rosetta Howard's 1939's observation (voiced by Brown, Staples and Natalie Cole) that "Men Are Like Street Cars" ("you miss one, you get another one right away") and Shemekia Copeland's passionate declarations on Bobby Bland's "I Pity the Fool," to a double-barreled plaint consisting of Brown's breakthrough 1954 hit, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and oddball Macy Gray's funk 'n' roll take on Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog."

Naturally, the guitar virtuosos are well represented, from the Texas swing of Gatemouth Brown's "Okie Dokie Stomp" and B.B. King's single-note guitar riffs on "Sweet Sixteen" (both hits for these men more than a half-century ago) to Buddy Guy, who serves as a link between the gone-electric past (covering Muddy Waters's "I Can't Be Satisfied") and the futurism of Jimi Hendrix, seen in archival footage being wowed by Guy's furious fretwork and frenetic showmanship. Guy delivers an emotional reading of Hendrix's classic blues "Red House" and returns for an apparently unplanned performance with Kidjo and guitarist Vernon Reid on the roiling "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)."

There are other standouts: Natalie Cole's passionate adaptation of Handy's "St. Louis Blues;" jazz guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer's eerie version of the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sittin' on Top of the World" with a little help from fiddler Alison Krauss; and a double dose of soul from Solomon Burke, whose rousing gospel blues take on "Down in the Valley" suggests why even the KKK once hired him in the '60s to entertain at a picnic, a story delightfully retold here.

Though the filmmakers didn't quite succeed in "[trying] to make this place smaller" -- Radio City Music Hall could never be a Delta roadhouse or Chicago club -- cinematographer Lisa Rinzler beautifully frames the performances, capturing a night of brilliant blues that's equal parts celebration of a glorious past and confirmation of contemporary connections.

LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE (PG-13, 106 minutes) -- Contains brief profanity. At the Avalon.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company