Bearing Witness and Weight
“This is the survivors’ club,” announces Ruth Brown. As the camera looks over the musicians assembled for a commemoration of the blues at Radio City Music Hall on 7 February 2003, her description, at once personal and communal, makes clear the ache and joy that make the music. “In my lifetime, it’s a very special day, and it’s a long time coming on.”
Lightning in a Bottle, Antoine Fuqua’s documentary of that remarkable concert, is at once deliberate and agile, showcasing the performances with appropriate reverence as well as a provocative energy. This remarkably dynamic mix, captured by innovative cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, is initiated in the program’s organization; the film’s executive producer Martin Scorsese (also producer of a 2003 PBS miniseries on the blues) introduces the show as a narrative “history,” meaning it takes up a chronological order, with illustrative backdrops (film clips of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, as well as photos and historical documents such as slave auction announcements).
Part temporal and part geographic (from the rural South to the urban North), the journey begins with African-born Angélique Kidjo’s moving performance of the traditional “Zélie,” prefaced by the assertion, “They took away our people, they took away our drums, but there is one thing they did not succeed in taking away, and that is our voice.” The collective voice that emerges here includes performances by Mavis Staples (“See That My Grave is Kept Clean”), David “Honeyboy” Edwards (“Gamblin’ Man”), Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (“Okie Dokie Stomp”), Bonnie Raitt (“Coming Home”), Solomon Burke (“Down in the Valley”), and, of all people, Natalie Cole reaching all kinds of surprising depths on W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”
The film is full of standout performances, most rendered as entire numbers (a few include voice-over interviews or observations, explanatory glosses that are helpful but a little distracting too). The sensational Buddy Guy is his own, allusive story, as he incarnates a bridge between generations and styles, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, who drew on Guy’s work, as he in turn inspired Guy. This circle comes round again when Guy returns for another, apparently unplanned performance, convinced by Kidjo to play as she sings Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” It’s a rousing collaboration, with Vernon Reid as well. All participants look as thrilled to be conjuring their magic as you are to hear them do it. At times Guy looks quite knocked out by Angélique, the camera wandering over his face as he smiles and watches, all the while playing the hell out his instrument, utterly comfortable and jaw-droppingly brilliant at once. The film, for all its inspired good fun, is at base about the exchanges that make music work as well as live—between artists, eras, and experiences. What makes Angelique so able to feel that Hendrix song anyway? You can only feel glad that she shares it, so generously, hopefully, and urgently.
The movie is concerned with politics, certainly, given its subject matter. The blues is a music about oppression, yearning, and movement. It’s a music of protest and joy, and, as Raitt puts it, “pain and juice.” True, it’s not a little jarring to note the well-heeled audience for this perfect but also anomalous evening at Radio City, as the images and stories behind the music insist on the dire costs paid by the very artists here celebrated. The blues is a music of legacy, bearing witness and weight. It invites you to rejoice in its existence, but understand your responsibility to its history. While Lightning in a Bottle often touches on ecstasy, it never lets you forget, either.
And yet it is tempting to lose yourself in the night’s incredible execution, with a house band that includes Dr. John, Keb’ Mo’, Levon Helm, and the night’s musical director Steve Jordan—who looks fit to burst with happiness on drums. The show doesn’t so much build to a climax as it does continuously excite, from India.Arie’s performance of “Strange Fruit” and Macy Gray’s strangely evocative “Hound Dog” to Steve Tyler and Joe Perry’s consummate “I’m a King Bee” (a song they seem rather born to perform together) and Chuck D and the Fine Arts Militia’s revision of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” as a magnificent anti-war anthem. Watching Chuck D in a suit explode all over the stage underlines the ways that music transcends genre and expectation to inspire movements, of bodies as well as communities. The final performer of the night, B.B. King, recalls an early performance of “Sweet Sixteen,” when he was booed by a Southern audience who rejected the “blues” as a concept. By the time he was done playing, he says, they were won over. And how could they not be? His show this night, with U.S.-flag-patterned guitar strap, reveals the power of the blues to uplift and sustain.