As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 17, 2005
The blues often is thought of as a masculine genre, an unforgiving world of hard drinking, skirt chasing, razor fights, faithless love and harsh prisons.
Often we forget about the feminine side of the blues, how singers like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie brought a vaudeville-bred sense of showmanship, style and a sense of regality to the music. It’s true that males still dominate the blues, but the contributions of women are not to be overlooked.
However, movie maker Robert Mugge felt this is exactly what happened in Martin Scorsese’s 2003 series of films about the blues for PBS. In several published interviews, Mugge has said it was the Scorsese series that inspired him to produce eight hour-long concert shows for what would become a Mississippi Public Television series called Blues Divas.
Each episode focused on a different singer -- some that you‘ll recognize, some that you probably never heard of. These are Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles, Denise La Salle, Odetta, Bettye LaVette, Deborah Coleman and Renee Austin.
A two-hour compilation of performances from that series will be shown at the Santa Fe Film Center at Cinemacafe Saturday and Wednesday. It’s Blues Divas’ southwest premier.
Mugge is no newcomer to the blues. Though he’s done documentaries on bluegrass, Hawaiian music, reggae, jazz, Cajun music, Gil Scott-Heron, Ruben Blades and even entertainers who performed for the troops during World War II, blues and soul have been his major focus. His films include Deep Blues, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, Blues Breaks and documentaries about Robert Johnson and Alligator Records.
Fans of the singers featured in Blues Divas, and in fact fans of the blues in general shouldn’t miss this movie.
It’s the music that’s the real draw here. It’s more of a “concert” film than documentary.
Blues Divas does include short segments in which each of the singers is interviewed by actor Morgan Freeman. Most of these are rather light conversations, that don’t reveal much -- except when Staples talks about getting punished by her God-fearing grandmother as a child for the sin of singing a blues song.
All the performances are shot at the Ground Zero Club in Clarksdale, Miss. (which is owned by Freeman). The audiences are small. Perhaps stage hands whooping it up.
The selection of talent represents a good variety of styles often included under the general umbrella of the blues. Staples comes from a gospel background and indeed plays gospel-rooted tunes in this film. Odetta is from the folk world. Thomas, Peebles and Lavette originally known as “soul” singers. And when Freeman calls LaSalle “the queen of the blues,” she corrects him. It’s “the Queen of Southern Soul Blues.
(Historical aside: At some point around the ‘80s what’s known as “blues” did a takeover of what was once known as soul music, at least southern soul. The two are now virtually inseparable in the public mind, so soul singers like Al Green, Soloman Burke and the ladies mentioned above are embraced on the “blues” circuit while “blues” artists like Robert Cray and Mem Shannon often play a style that once would have been called “soul.” Indeed, it’s good not to get too anal-retentive about such distinctions. But you can’t help but remember the story about B.B. King opening for Sam Cooke in the early ‘60s. Cooke’s audience, who considered King’s blues as old fashioned and hokey booed B.B. off the stage.)
The undeniable highlight of this show is the Queen of Southern Soul Blues. LaSalle takes the stage like a tornado, tearing through funny, sexy songs like “Don‘t Mess With My Man” and “Your Man is Cheatin’ On Us.”
Lavette is a singer who goes back to the ‘60s, but never achieved the fame she deserved. Her voice is mesmerizing, oozing with emotion and her performance in Blues Divas is likely to win her new fans. My only beef is that the film doesn’t include her signature tune “Let Me Down Easy.” (Serious soul fans should seek out the 8-minute version of this song on Let Me Down Easy: In Concert. It’s a Dutch import, but available at a decent price on Amazon and other online sites.)
Odetta’s voice just grows richer by the year. She performs a surprising tough cover of Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues” and sweet version of “Careless Love,” a song that has been batted around between country and blues artists. Talking about the implications of this sexual cautionary tale she advises her audience not to forget their condoms.
In addition to all these veterans, there are a couple of younger, lesser-known artists included here. Renee Austin is a big-voiced redhead in a slinky black dress. She belts out a bluesy torch song called “Fool Moon” she says is inspired by Ella Fitzgerald.
Guitarist/singer Deborah Coleman starts off with a respectable cover of Koko Taylor’s “I’m a Woman” (a rewrite of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.) Unfortunately the song degenerates in to a lengthy, generic bar-band guitar solo. I wish they’d have cut this in half to make room for another LaSalle song or Lavette’s “Let Me Down Easy.”
I don’t know what kind of business obstacles there might be between Mississippi and New Mexico public television, but after watching this two-hour compilation, I wish KNME would broadcast the entire eight-hour Blues Diva series.
Blues Divas is playing at the Santa Fe Film Center at Cinemacafe, 1616 St. Michael's Drive 4 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $8; $7 for students and seniors; $6 for film festival members.
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