Lightning in a Bottle

On Feb. 7, 2003, a concert was held at New York’s Radio City Music Hall called “Salute to the Blues.” Structured to represent the evolution of the genre, it didn’t cover all the ground but it touched a lot of bases.

Lightning is a record of that event, and despite some customary documentary garnishing — reminiscences by some of the performers, archival footage (of Son House, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker), scenes from rehearsals — this is essentially a concert film and as such a pretty mixed bag. Fortunately only one of the performances could be called flat-out bad, the one given by David Johansen, who sings in a growling shout that seems miles away from any kind of blues sensibility, though he’s expertly accompanied by legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin (who played with Howlin’ Wolf for 23 years).

Some of the old giants show up and do their old giant thing, notably B.B. King, Sonny Burke, and lesser-known perennials like Larry Johnson, David “Honeyboy” Edwards (still brilliant in his late 80s) and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who eschews the blues label, saying he plays “American and world music, Texas-style.” And he does.

Contemporary performers not strictly known as blues singers appear, including Steve Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith (blah); John Fogerty, who does a rousing version of Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special”; Macy Gray, putting a personal stamp on “Hound Dog”; and Natalie Cole, doing a surprisingly credible version of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (this is keeping it in the family, since her father Nat played Handy in a ’50s biopic).

The most electric (in both senses of the word) moment comes when Buddy Guy joins Angelique Kidjo for a kinetic and sexy version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” Guy had just played the shit out of Hendrix’s “Red House,” but this number amps things up to the trance-ecstasy level. It’s one of several felicitous pairings here, which include Alison Krauss and James “Blood” Ulmer, and Bonnie Raitt and B. B. King.

Despite a few relevant references to historical racism, the film is generally designed to make you feel good.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Oct. 29 and 30, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Oct. 31, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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