Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues (PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I did very little yesterday except watch some TV, a couple of shows on PBS including a White House blues concert and an American Masters special on Cab Calloway. The White House blues concert featured a bit of President Obama singing “Sweet Home Chicago” (what else?) with an all-star band including B. B. King (he can’t perform standing up anymore but he still plays guitar like an S.O.B. and sings serviceably with something of the power of his glory years, and as I wrote in connection with the Martin Scorsese-executive produced PBS series The Blues King has managed to become old, famous and rich playing the blues, and not many blues musicians have been so fortunate!), Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger (whom I could have done without, quite frankly; even at their greatest the Rolling Stones were always deeply under the shadow of the Beatles, and Jagger’s pretensions towards blues godhood weren’t based on much but a rather thin voice that was fine for his rock material, acceptable in soul songs like Otis Redding’s “Can’t Turn You Loose” but simply not powerful enough for hard-core blues: here he and Jeff Beck do a decent enough job on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” but Wolf’s own record, with the astonishing Hubert Sumlin’s stabbing guitar lines, is in a whole other musical universe by comparison — Jagger also did the 1978 Rolling Stones’ disco hit “Miss You,” and while it sounded better without the disco trappings it still didn’t belong on what was advertised as a blues show), Shemekia Copeland (PBS’s Web site seems confused about how to spell her first name, but her presence was welcome: she’s a big-voiced, earthy blues mama and her father, Johnny Copeland, was also a major blues musician), Susan Tedeschi (adequate singer — apparently the white blues girl they call when they can’t get Bonnie Raitt — and wife of Derek Trucks, the Allman band veteran who was also on the show), singer/trombonist “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Buddy Guy (who’s younger than B. B. King but, even though he can still play upright, looks older) and Gary Clark, Jr., who was introduced by the overly chipper African-American M.C. Taraji P. Henson as “the future of the blues.” That I can believe: he duetted with Copeland on a song called “Beat Up Old Guitar,” one of those the-blues-will-never-die-even-if-the-blues-musicians-will things, and on his own did a version of “Catfish Blues,” a.k.a. “Rollin’ Stone” (the piece alternately credited to Muddy Waters, Robert Petway and B. B. King — the Waters version, with its famous last lines “My mamma told my papa/Just the day ’fore I was born/Gonna be a boy-child comin’/He’s gonna be a rollin’ stone,” gave the Rolling Stones their name and I perhaps naïvely assumed that’s why Clark was doing it) that was the best song on the show, a tough, no-nonsense rendition of a blues standard that threaded the needle, remaining true to the tradition while putting Clark’s own “spin” on the song.

The show opened with “Let the Good Times Roll,” led by B. B. King from his chair and with the various other guitarists on the stage trying to add their two cents’ worth to a message King and “Lucille” had already communicated (the rendition was otherwise great but it would have been nice if someone had mentioned the person who introduced that song, Louis Jordan), and closed with “Sweet Home Chicago,” chosen in honor of the city where President Obama’s political career began and with Obama — inevitably, after his controversial appearance at the Apollo Theatre doing a guest vocal on an Al Green song, “Let’s Stay Together” — being coaxed into doing a guest vocal. (My verdict on Obama as a singer is pretty much Stanley Turrentine’s on Bill Clinton as a saxophonist: he’s surprisingly good but it’s just as well he’s got a day job.) “Sweet Home Chicago” was (more or less) written by Robert Johnson and, as introduced by him, was a great song but contained a whopping geographical error that’s forced everyone who’s done it since to rewrite it: Johnson sang, “Come on, baby don’t you want to go/To the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago” (he actually ripped off the line from Kokomo Arnold, who had sung “To the land of Indiana, to my sweet home Kokomo,” which is both geographically accurate and scans properly). You can’t just change the state name — “Illinois” has one less syllable than “California” and its more “open” vowel sounds don’t suit the melody — and the expedients used last night were pretty lame. After the main part of the show (which contained only about two-thirds of the actual performance: by my count, of the 15 songs listed on the PBS Web site only 10 were actually shown on the on-air version) there was a brief clip of B. B. King singing “The Thrill Is Gone,” which according to the Web site was actually placed second on the program.

Also, M.C. Henson made a whopping mistake of her own: he identified Louis Armstrong and W. C. Handy as great blues musicians from New Orleans — she was right about Armstrong (and though Armstrong is better known as a jazz musician, he certainly played enough blues in his day) but wrong about Handy, two of whose three best-known songs, “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues,” give away his Memphis, Tennessee origins (just as B. B. King and Elvis Presley both got their starts in Memphis — I remember seeing a photo of them hanging out together in the mid-1950’s at a time when most people outside Memphis had never heard of either of them — as did Booker T. Jones, who led the backup band and did so superbly) — and though the state-occasion nature of this telecast got in the way of the music sometimes, it was still a marvelous tribute to a unique (African-)American art form. It’s interesting to note that Jimmy Carter began the In Performance at the White House series with a concert by Vladimir Horowitz (who was, as I recall, in superb late form — notably in a performance of the famous “Heroic” polonaise of Chopin that took it more slowly and subtly than usual, making it great music instead of patriotic bombast), and when Ronald Reagan became President, after he ripped the solar panels off the White House roof he invited Willie Nelson (a political polymath who’s since performed benefits for people as varied as H. Ross Perot and Dennis Kucinich) — one could probably do an interesting research piece speculating what each President’s choice in musical performers says about them as people and as leaders, but for the first (partly) African-American president a genre dominated (though no longer exclusively performed) by African-Americans seemed a logical and natural “fit.”