Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ADIFF ’12: Times Like Deese

The looming liquidation of Hostess Brands represents 185,000 jobs likely lost.  That is a whole lot of blues in the Obama era.  Ever mindful of the significance of an African American president in the White House, Marteen Schmidt & Thomas Doebele take a Lomaxian journey into deep southern blues country to find out how blue the traditional bluesmen’s blues still are in Times Like Deese: You Can’t Keep a Man Down Always (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Rarely is heard a discouraging word about the 44th president, but L.C. Ulmer’s first blues is dedicated to James Meredith, the civil rights pioneer who integrated Ole Miss and later became a high profile staffer for Sen. Jesse Helms.  His lyrics end before that point, making it exactly the sort of song Schmidt and Doebele were hoping to record.  “Blind Mississippi” Morris Cummings seems the readiest to oblige with political material directly addressing current controversies.  Less topical but still on-point for the Dutch filmmakers, musicians like Josh “Razorblade” Stewart, Chester “Memphis Gold” Chandler, and Charlie Sayles often sing blues about their experiences serving in Viet Nam.

Times Like Deese (a problematically condescending attempt at approximating rural Southern vernacular) has some deeply felt music, but its economic analysis is rather shallow.  Regardless, it is nice to see the blues is alive and well as a form of musical statement.  Perhaps Stewart has the most memorable performance, with a decidedly ribald take on “Trouble in Mind,” but most of the old school bluesmen acquit themselves in style.  However, the occasional nods to hip hop are consistently underwhelming.

It might shock New Yorkers to learn B.B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis actually books blues artists, unlike the 42nd Street club that largely presents vaguely blues-influenced rock bands.  Indeed, it is quite cool to see Cummings play a set there.  Co-director-co-editors Schmidt and Doebele make storied Blues capitals like Clarksdale appear almost completely untouched by time or economic development.  Granted, profound change might well be due there, but there also seems to be a bit of the blues collectors’ notorious poverty fetishism going on as well.

Arguably, the blues gets less financial love and support than even jazz, so any blues doc treating the music with respect earns a recommendation for fans.  TLD would have served the music better if it were not so desperate to make political points, but Schmidt and Doebele are sure to impress plenty of festival programmers that way.  Recommended for traditional blues devotees, Times Like Deese has its American premiere this Saturday (11/24) at the Columbia Teacher’s College Chapel as part of the 2012 ADIFF in New York.