Photo by Carol FriedmanYear after year, we've come to count on the Long Beach Blues Festival to deliver the most exciting rosters of blues talent available, a tradition around which we all feel immense local pride and joy. But this year, the 24th Annual Fest, the folks responsible have really outdone themselves: they've resurrected the dead.
Between sets of still-breathing performers, San Diego-based Reelin' in the Years Productions, the world's largest archival music-footage library, will screen previously unseen filmed highlights of the American Folk Blues Festival, a touring entity that introduced European audiences to the best the blues had to offer back in the early to mid-'60s.
Howlin' Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowall, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins—this is positively thrilling stuff, the sort of footage that quite literally makes one's hair stand on end and may even create unpleasant dampness in one's shorts. With all due respect to today's blues greats—and there are plenty of them as the blues remains perhaps the most artistically vital and thriving musical genre extant in the '00s—but there is nothing to compare to the electricity of witnessing the originators of the form screaming, trembling and wailing like they have a direct cable hook-up to Satan's giant-screen TV.
The highlights of the program are too numerous to do justice to here, but include:
•The larger-than-life Howlin' Wolf, comically white-socked ankles thick as tree trunks, shrieking in apparent agony as if he has a pound of razor blades imbedded in his larynx, shuddering and sweating and grimacing and stinking and shooting looks to the audience that declare "Bow down before my might, for you have never seen my like," accompanied by Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim and Hubert Sumlin, whose guitar sounds as if it's been strung with electrified rubber bands.
•A loose, hip-shakin' harp jam featuring Big Mama Thornton, Big Walter Horton, J.B. Lenoir, Doctor Ross and the (let's face it) non-harp-playing John Lee Hooker, who becomes so hopelessly lost in the fray that Thornton can't help having a laugh at his expense—although Hooker later redeems himself with a haunted, positively spooky solo take on his immortal "Hobo Blues."
•Classic '20s blues singer Victoria Spivey, dressed and made up like a drag queen from Mars on Gay Pride Day, performing the lewd and greasy "Black Snake Blues," as the gracious and underappreciated early guitar great Lonnie Johnson and a seemingly smoked-out Sonny Boy Williamson provide stellar accompaniment.
•A very young and stylish-looking T-Bone Walker playing his guitar perpendicular to his body, executing stage moves that Jimi Hendrix would cop a few years hence, all the while implementing elegant, jazz-infused guitar lines to perfection and appearing for all the world as if he's enjoying a sexual relationship with his instrument.
•Funky and carefree Magic Sam—a man so casual he didn't even bother bringing a guitar to his gigs, just borrowed one from whoever was around—playing a boogie so shit-your-pants hot and scary that Jimi and Stevie Ray must surely tremble in their graves whenever this footage is screened.
•A finale that brings Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Big Joe Williams, Johnson, Spivey, Williamson and Dixon together at once on the same stage for a jam on "Bye Bye Blues." The rock & roll equivalent would be something like having Elvis, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Butterfield, Keith Moon and Jack Bruce jamming out together on "Louie Louie." Godhead!
More great news: The American Folk Blues Festival 1962—1966, Volumes One and Two, featuring 36 great performances in all, will be commercially available on DVD come Aug. 26. If you don't purchase this collection, you're certainly a weenie; feel free to go back to listening to your Walter Trout CDs.
For those who prefer their performers on the less decomposed side, the Right Reverend Al Green will fill your soul with rapture—during Sunday's festivities, natch. This is a man so blissed-out on Jesus that when I interviewed him a few years ago, he actually sang most of the answers to the questions I posed, peppering his responses with keening, falsetto sentiments such as "I feel so gooooooooooooooood I just can't stop siiinginnnnnng!" And why not? If I were nearly so happy a camper, were I gifted with even the tiniest fraction of Green's vocal juice, you'd never get me to shut the fuck up either.
Green, of course, is best known as a latter-day soul singer whose litany of sterling hits back in the '70s—well past the commercial heyday of soul music—included such decade-redeeming tuneage as "Tired of Being Alone," "Call Me (Come Back Home)," "I'm Still in Love With You" and "Let's Stay Together."
Then came the Tragic Incident. Let's face it, all soul singers must have a tragic incident marking their histories to achieve true immortality, whether it's Sam Cooke being shot down in his boxers, Otis Redding taking the Big Swim in a plane wreck, Tina Turner's status as a human speed bag for hubby Ike, Jackie Wilson being dangled by his heels out of a skyscraper window by the mob, or all of the key members of the Temptations dropping off, one by one, like so many octogenarians in a French heat wave. Hey, soul greats like Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, Sam Moore and Clarence Carter aren't as famous as any of the above-mentioned precisely because nothing way fucked ever happened to them; that's a simple, if cruel, fact.
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But I digress. In Green's case of grand misfortune, an ex-girlfriend broke into his apartment one fateful day in 1974 and hurled a pot of boiling grits onto his fine, brown frame as he was getting out of his bathtub (youch!), burning the whatsis out of our hero's parts and forever altering his career trajectory. To Green, this was all an obvious sign that Jesus was righteously pissed off. By 1976, he'd bought a church, become an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle and begun concentrating his musical efforts on the realm of the sacred. In 1980, following yet another Jesus-is-displeased incident (a nasty fall from a stage), Green, for a time, completely abandoned secular music and became a full-time gospel artist.
This was all jake by me, as it freed Green up to execute his shimmering vocal stunts on his own terms, without any regard to commercial pressure or utilization of any contemporary date-stamping studio malarkey such as synth-drums, beatboxes or other ludicrous methods, which ruined many an otherwise fine soul singer's efforts in the Ugly '80s. There have been cautious and somewhat halfhearted returns to pop and R&B for Green in the ensuing years, but singing gospel remains the man's passion and forte. Green is still a relatively young man at 57, a marvelously physical performer who gleefully struts and stomps about a stage as he works his vocal magic, still able to hit high notes to make canines run for the hills as he collects brownie points for the Almighty.
If I don't love Al Green, well, then grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry and Mona Lisa was a man!
The 24th Annual Long Beach Blues Festival at the Cal State Long Beach Athletic Field, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-7115. Sat.-Sun., gates open 9 a.m., music starts 11 a.m. $40 per day or $70 for both days.