The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966, Volume One & Two (Hip-O Records/Reelin' In the Years, 2003)

This is the year of the blues! PBS is preparing to launch a series of films by well known directors (including Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders) each giving their spin on one or another aspect of the blues. The project was overseen by Martin Scorsese, and it promises to be an exciting and in depth look at this definitive American art form. Other companies are joining in the fun, including a multi-disc set of CDs from Virgin/Right Stuff, and a remarkable two DVD set entitled The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966. A couple of German blues lovers -- one a Jew who had experienced persecution by the Nazis, the other a former Hitler Youth member -- joined forces to bring American blues musicians to Germany. They produced a series of concerts, and videotaped some of the greatest blues performers in the world. The tapes languished unseen for forty years until they were rediscovered and issued recently on DVD. This is what DVD can and should be: a storehouse for historic archiving! With pristine sound and clear video these two volumes present a virtual history of the blues which is not only informative but thrilling music as well.

Volume One sets the tone. Beginning with the great T-Bone Walker's "Call Me When You Need Me," and working its way through the yelps of Sonny Terry (& Brownie McGhee) on "Hootin' Blues" with stops for John Lee Hooker, Sippie Wallace, Otis Spann and Muddy Waters, the stunning black and white images and crystalline audio are the next best thing to being there. Better maybe, since you can simply watch it all again whenever you like. (And, yes, Cat, the menu is intuitive and easy to use.) I was particularly happy to see the inclusion of Lonnie Johnson, whose contribution to the blues is often under-rated, and he is sensational. Dignified and serious, he steps up to the microphone and lets loose some superlative melodic guitar work!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The programme starts around a shack, built on the set, in a German television studio. A woman sits knitting and T-Bone Walker is playing his guitar, riffing, when Shakey Jake walks in and sings a pleading blues. It's so mellow and natural, it's fantastic. Then outside the same set Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee do their thing; a few couples drop by to dance. It's just one of the sets they use. Others include an indoor juke joint, or the front of a Chicago or Mississippi vista. The performers seem relaxed and comfortable even when placed in these fictional landscapes.

The technical aspects of the programme are wonderful. The liner notes describe it this way:

"...originally recorded in the state-of-the-art technology of its day, all these performances were captured on two-inch PAL black-and-white video tape with unusually high standards of audio engineering and attention to detail in both the set design and cinematography. This was in part due to the high caliber of talent working behind the scenes. The imaginative and fluid camera work was captured by Michael Ballhaus (whose later work would include such films as Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York). The sets were designed by famous artist Gunther Keiser, who also did the striking and unique poster art for each year's AFBF and many other major artists (Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa)."

Whether dropped into a set, or standing on a stage, the blues singers and players perform beautifully. It's particularly refreshing to see them introducing each other, as Sonny Boy Williamson does Lonnie Johnson, paying him the deference the master is due. Muddy Waters is shown singing in front of the band without his guitar. He leads them through a mellow but chooglin' "Got My Mojo Working." And then the whole company comes out for a concluding "Bye Bye Blues." I can't describe how exciting it is to see Muddy and Sonny Boy, Big Joe Williams, Willie Dixon, Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey, Memphis Slim, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Otis Spann and Bill Stepney all together on one stage. It's a blues fan's dream!

And then there's Volume Two. Sonny Boy Williamson, in front of a ramshackle building, plays a solo "Bye Bye Bird." Then he goes inside to another set, a model of a juke joint. Here he's accompanied by an incredible band; Sunnyland Slim on piano, Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Willie Dixon bass and Clifton James on drums. He introduces the band, and they play "Come on Home Baby," led by Sunnyland Slim, and featuring a sizzling guitar solo by Little Hubert Sumlin. They are relaxed and comfortable. Their German hosts were treating them with a respect and affection that they were not given in their homeland. Remember that Howlin' Wolf was only invited to appear on American television because the Rolling Stones requested him!

Willie Dixon is introduced by Memphis Slim, who then plays piano for Dixon's rendition of "Nervous." Perhaps this is the song that began the tradition of stuttering (like "My Generation" or "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet") and big Willie does it brilliantly. Lightnin' Hopkins does a shuffling version of "Mojo Hand" and then Victoria Spivey performs "Black Snake Blues." These performances are authentic, and as close as most of us will ever get to seeing these people. Most of them are gone. Some of them were getting on at the time these programmes were made. Lonnie Johnson was killed by a taxi while crossing the street in Toronto in 1970. Sonny Boy Williamson died only months after these recordings were done. But the musicians we see on these remarkable DVDs are vital and alive. The black and white images are crisp and sharp, the music beautifully reproduced. The audience was respectful; many of them jazz aficionados who saw blues as the beginning of their music. The three songs done by Howlin' Wolf display the passion and fire with which he filled everything he touched. You can hear the basis of Captain Beefheart's growl in Wolf's vocals.

I hadn't even heard about these DVDs. I was looking for something to spend my birthday money on, so I was browsing through the esoteric selection of CDs stocked by my local independent record retailer. He always has plenty of folk, and jazz, lots of imports and rare recordings. There in a cardboard box on the counter were a few DVDs. Not the stuff that the mainstream stores sell, oh no. Steve Hackett, King Crimson, and...what's that? The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966! Whew! It's got Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf, and Lonnie Johnson, and...wow! I wasted no time buying them, and rushed home to play them. This is important and wonderful material. Thanks to all who had anything to do with creating, locating, and marketing these remarkable packages.



[David Kidney]

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