Ain’t nothin’ but a good time with ‘Blues’
Our notion of “the blues” can get a narrow definition. On the emotional side, the blues is generally thought of as a sad feeling. On the musical side, the phrase often conjures an image of a black man with an acoustic guitar and a Southern accent – or, for another generation, a white guy with an electric guitar.There is, however, a far broader way of thinking about the blues. Consider two recent spotlight performances at the Benedict Music Tent. One was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, joined by the African percussion ensemble Odadaa! playing “Congo Square,” a tribute to New Orleans composed by Wynton Marsalis and Odadaa! leader Yacub Addy. The other was the Aspen Festival Orchestra and electric guitarist Steven Mackey playing Mackey’s “Tuck and Roll.” The first of these sought to illuminate the connection between West African rhythms and New Orleans jazz traditions; the second, to reconcile orchestral music with rock ‘n’ roll.
But the clear foundation of those two works – as different as can be in sound, structure, instrumentation and effect – was the blues. “Tuck and Roll” repeatedly quoted a phrase from the electric blues classic “Sunshine of Your Love.” Of “Congo Square” and Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra saxophonist Victor Goines said, “The blues is prevalent throughout the piece. Like Duke Ellington, Wynton is a modern blues musician. It’s ever-present in Wynton’s music.””It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” a musical theater piece currently being presented by Theatre Aspen, takes this expansive look at the blues. The blues here are not necessarily sorrowful – although hard times are a building block of the blues, a reality not glossed over in the production. Nor are the blues only of the acoustic Delta variety, or even the electric version stirred up by transplanted Southerners on Chicago’s South Side.In “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” the blues are about the sort of deep feelings that make you want to cry – or laugh, or dance, or shoot someone, or get in bed with your best friend’s wife. The blues here are primal and intense, expressed in simple language. And whether they’re played on an ancient banjo or a souped-up electric guitar, the essential instrument is always the oldest and most basic one – the human voice. The production features a versatile and accomplished band of local musicians, directed by guitarist David Harding. But the heart of the show is the five singers – Harvy Blanks, Dwayne Carrington, Kennedy Pugh, Bria Walker and Mary Bridget Davies (who appeared last year as Janis Joplin in Theatre Aspen’s production of “Love, Janis”) – who guide a musical tour from African chants (the precursor to the blues) through the Mississippi Delta and north to Chicago.
There are side trips on the way – into gospel, which the quintet excels at; into country, which shares its structure with blues. While most of the story is conveyed in song, there are spoken segments that illuminate blues history, and characters like Robert Johnson, who, as legend has it, went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unfathomable guitar skills. The show gets at the knottier subjects – guns, sex, whisky – mostly by letting the lyrics speak for themselves, while the actors maintain a lighter presence outside of the songs.The intertwining of blues reality, and the reality that music theater audiences expect an overall jovial presentation, can be problematic. In the second act – dominated by electric blues, and reflecting blues as an entertainment form rather than an expression of true, hard life – is a particularly awkward transition. A version of “Goodnight, Irene,” featuring a goofy exchange between singers and band, leads into “Strange Fruit,” a song about racism that is spine-tingling in its graphic specifics. The juxtaposition of the songs is clumsy enough that the singers pause the show to prepare the audience.
It brings the show down only for the moment, though. “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” isn’t going to leave anyone blue.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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