Wherever true, rootsy blues growl or moan into the air, there's a lot of love in the room. Most times, there's as much pain to be heard in these messages from the soul. When the room is Radio City Music Hall, and the artists include Mavis Staples, Ruth Brown, Odetta, Solomon Burke, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King, you best believe that you'll feel the love in each hard-earned note. As seen through the lens of Antoine Fuqua in his concert film Lightning in a Bottle, 2003's "Salute to the Blues" benefit concert is a living history of the blues, a reception wedding legendary artists to their deeply influenced pop successors, and a jam to die for.
Executive producer Martin Scorsese also produced the PBS miniseries The Blues last year, and Fuqua occasionally stitches in bits of blues history (and American history) in a stuttered attempt at contextualizing some of the songs. Rehearsal and backstage footage gives a taste of the bigger picture of the star-studded event, but the meat of the film is in the performances. A majority of the numbers—backed mostly by a stellar house band which includes Levon Helm, Keb' Mo', and Dr. John—fully arrest the audience, a handful feel perfunctory, and a couple struck me as out-and-out ill-advised: Steven Tyler and Joe Perry's "I'm a King Bee" and Chuck D's rapped deconstruction of John Lee Hooker's guitar standard "Boom, Boom."
It's a shame that Fuqua found it necessary to include the show's few lowlights when more highlights are undoubtedly awaiting their appearance as DVD extras. One might suspect that Fuqua includes Macy Gray's reclamation of "Hound Dog" (officially credited to Lieber & Stoller, though its heart belongs to Big Mama Thornton), John Fogerty's enjoyable but unsurprising rendition of his hit cover of Leadbelly's "Midnight Special," and cutaway shots to the largely white crowd of benefit boppers as a satirical dig at the commodification of the blues into a Dan Aykroyd franchise.
These minor distractions utterly fail to blunt the power of spirited segments like the one musically pitting Staples, Cole, and the particularly tenacious Brown against a mute Bill Cosby, doggedly standing in for the male species ("Men Are Like Streetcars") or the film closing set by B.B. King, in which the blues monarch happily shares the stage with Raitt and Robert Cray. Buddy Guy lays down some killer licks on Muddy Waters' "Can't Be Satisfied" and two songs by Guy's famous friend and protégé Jimi Hendrix. Guy provides some of the film's best storytelling, first by recounting his first meeting with Hendrix, then as the subject of Fuqua's gleeful narration explaining that Angelique Kidjo literally seduced Guy into sticking around and accompanying her, unscheduled, on "Voodoo Child."
Though many of the performers aren't, or arguably aren't, blues artists (but rather soul, R and B, or even folk artists), Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Hubert Sumlin (performing only ten days after having a lung removed) lend undeniable authenticity to the roster of blues standards. As for soul singer Burke, his two-song set is shamelessly upbeat and completely infectious; Burke's massive, swaying frame fills out a throne-like seat until, in a joyous flourish of showmanship, the singer lumbers to his feet. How often does a man standing up give you a thrill? Hit and miss though it may be, Lightning in a Bottle buys you a cheap seat for a fun-filled, big-ticket event.