Wednesday, March 16, 2016

SXSW ’16: I am the Blues

The blues survived segregation, share-cropping, music industry exploitation, and the sort of health risks that come with hard-drinking and late nights, but will it survive with the passing of the old guard? The answer to that question is not at all certain to the blues veterans still playing and gigging. What keeps them so resilient? The music, stupid. You can hear the history and the character in every performance captured in Daniel Cross’s I am the Blues (trailer here), which screens at the 2016 SXSW.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is not just a blues guitarist. He is one of the last masters of the Bentonia Blues style associated with Skip James. Holmes is also more than a musician. He is the owner-proprietor of the Blue Front Café, one of the last surviving classic juke joints. Business is not what it used to be, but Holmes might have a sudden influx of geeky fanboys following the doc’s SXSW screenings.

Everybody Cross features can still lay it down, but Bobby Rush maintains a B.B. King-style touring schedule. He was not proclaimed “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” for nothing. Like a Sinatra or a Tom Jones, he still has that magnetic stage charisma. Bobby Rush (nobody calls him just “Rush” he tells the audience) becomes the film’s de facto guide, sitting in with a number of his old friends and helping Cross to coax stories out of them in their interview segment.

We will also meet Henry Gray, the dean of the assembled musicians, who played with Robert Lockwood, Jr., Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. More than anyone, he developed the jazzy barrelhouse sound associated with Chicago piano blues. You can definitely hear some of his Louisiana roots in there.

For a smoother R&B-ish blues sound, the film turns to Barbara Lynn, a trailblazer blues artist, who was charting at a time when about the only other woman playing an electric guitar was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When they all get together to jam, the good times roll.

Of course, their memories are not always pleasant. They all suffered the indignities of southern segregation and northern racism. The film’s superstar, Bobby Rush is probably the most forthright discussing such issues. Yet, some of the film’s most memorable oral history simply relates universal human drama, such as Carol Fran’s story of the man who inspired her first hit, “Emmitt Lee.”

I am the Blues is a terrific film that does the angels’ work documenting original generation blues artists for posterity. It is a deceptively laidback film that hits us in the gutbucket with some pretty heavy truths in between the getting-down. It sounds great too. Just about everyone is still at the top of their form and none of the jamming musicians lacks for enthusiasm. Very highly recommended for anyone who cares anything for American music, I am the Blues screens again this Friday (3/18), as part of this year’s SXSW.