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Photograph by Paul Brissman

Rhythm Royalty: Solomon Burke proves that age is no impediment to musical majesty in 'Lightning in a Bottle.'

Blues Power

'Lightning in a Bottle' salutes blues greats

By Richard von Busack

REMEMBER that movie Crossroads, where Ralph Mojo had to find his Macchio? At the time, some San Francisco critic snorted in print about the "cliché" Joe Seneca delivered: "Sometimes, the blues is nothing but a good man feeling bad." Then, not a week later, a different journalist interviewed Mr. John Lee Hooker of Hillsborough, asking Hook what he supposed the blues was all about, in one sentence. Guess what he said, word for word? Obviously, a music this simple and universally understood is too powerful to die. Lightning in a Bottle, an exciting and redemptive documentary by Antoine Fuqua, offers an overview of the all-star "Salute to the Blues" concert held in New York on Feb. 7, 2003. The artists here are mostly aged—the young up-and-comer Shemekia Copeland is an exception—yet the performers have more than enough power to hold the stage at Radio City Music Hall.

The highlights of the 40-some songs are too numerous to list. One show-stopper is Bill Cosby's pantomime bit, pulling some long, pleading faces as lying and signifying men are denounced in "Men Are Like Streetcars" by the trio of Mavis Staples, Natalie Cole and Ruth Brown. Staples also chills spines with her solo version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Buddy Guy, in his old derby and vest, encompasses everything from Muddy Waters' "Can't Be Satisfied" to a blistering Hendrix tribute ("Red House" and "Voodoo Child"). The lesser-known Larry Johnson—who, we're told, once tried unsuccessfully to get a job as a maintenance man in Radio City Music Hall—demonstrates his own guitar playing, a rag in the style of the neglected blues guitarist Blind Blake.

Howlin' Wolf's guitarist Hubert Sumlin is a special guest, still alive and kicking despite losing a lung to cancer. As Sumlin shows how "Killing Floor" is done, David Johansen sings the vocals. It's a heartfelt tribute. Johansen obviously knows the song intimately, enough to come up with an imitation of Wolf's gravelly growl, but there are no new flavors revealed. The goddessy India.Arie—silk-turbaned, with lacy North African earrings—wrings out an overemotive "Strange Fruit"; behind her are news photos of lynching. This song doesn't repay melodramatics. Billie Holiday's version punctured hearts because of how much she held back. The easy low point is a zonked and impersonal Macy Gray, feeling her way through "Hound Dog."

Still, what a lineup! As Mac Rebennack of New Orleans comments, as he surveys the talent, "It's as if someone looked in the Yellow Pages under 'Blues.'" This is the sort of show where a luminary like Dr. John is playing backup in the house band. Lightning in a Bottle serves as a rebuke to the disposability of contemporary music. A monument to endurance: the mammoth Solomon Burke singing his hit "Down in the Valley" seated on a gilded throne. Like so many of the other performers here—Odetta, Bonnie Raitt, the Neville Brothers and B.B. King—Burke shows that sometimes age only adds to majesty.

Lightning in a Bottle (Unrated; 106 min.), a documentary by Antoine Fuqua, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the November 17-23, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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