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Cain's Rep Is Pure Blues Gold

Chris Cain
Kerry Paul and Paul Cochran

Thunder Alley: Chris Cain composes and plays the blues for San José Rep.

Local bluesman Chris Cain brings musical 'Thunder' to new San José Repertory Theatre musical drama

By Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor

CHRIS CAIN sits at the interview table like a little penguin wishing his wings were large enough to carry him away. He shows no impatience or disrespect--each question is answered thoughtfully and thoroughly--but it is clear that his mind is other places.

As soon as the interview is over, it is obvious where. Cain glides immediately back over to the piano; his head tilts, his body rocks, his fingers savor the feel of the keys, and the room quietly fills with a mellow, melodic music. Chris Cain relaxes. At the keyboard, he is back at home.

Cain is back home in another way as well. The blues singer, songwriter and recording artist has returned to San Jose as co-composer, musical director and performing singer and guitarist for Keith Glover's play Thunder Knocking on the Door, which inaugurates the San José Repertory Theatre's brand-new downtown performing space this week. Although Cain has written/performed on four CDs, with one more due out by the end of the year, he confesses that doing a musical score for a play has been a significant challenge.

"At first I thought it was no big deal," he says in a guitar-twang accent that is more of the Tennessee hills (where his father grew up) than the Santa Clara Valley. "You know, go down to San Jose, do this local thing. And then I was performing out in New York, and I see where the San Jose Rep is holding auditions out there for this musical, and I'm thinking, uh-oh, maybe this is a little bit bigger than I thought."

The composing task itself was huge. Thunder is a blues musical ("blusical," Cain calls it) set in rural Alabama in the 1960s that draws on the legend of a woman's guitar duel with a spirit. The play has been performed twice before (in Baltimore and at the Yale Rep), but stock blues music was used both times.

San José Rep Artistic Director Timothy Near didn't think that was good enough. Cain and his co-composer, Michael Butler, had to come up with 12 original songs; they also had to underscore the play in a way similar to a movie, where music follows every dramatic turn. As Thunder tracks black music from its African mystical roots to the present, the score had to run the gamut from gospel to blues, R&B, jazz and a modern electric-rock sound.

A major problem was that while blues music and lyrics tend to be simple ("My baby done left me, now I don't know what to do"), those of musical comedy are much more complex. A fusion had to be found to bring together the two forms.

Cain admits he was nervous at first about working at other people's direction ("I've tried, but I've never been able to do that before"), but says that he has come away "exhilarated" by the Thunder process. "These people are visionaries," he explains, knotting his fingers up around his head and then opening them like antenna to higher thoughts. "Sometimes the ideas just come flying. Some of this stuff I just would have given up on, but they kept me going."

NEAR, WHO IS directing Thunder herself, says that selecting Cain was "the smartest thing I did." She didn't consider Cain for the musical director post at first; the only other play he'd ever seen, after all, was one he'd acted in himself as a student. She says that after she hired Cain, she searched around for a musical director for a while but couldn't find the right one. "And then I thought, it just seemed weird to have someone else telling Chris Cain what to write and play. Chris' knowledge of blues music is so great."

The stakes on Thunder are fairly high for the Rep. As the opening play in the company's new theater, the musical sits in a bright spotlight of critical and popular attention. Near has been working on the project for more than a year, a time period that she quietly agrees is "unusual."

Her own personal preparation has been meticulous. Though she comes from a musical background (what else would you expect from Holly Near's sister?), she was more familiar with black gospel amd folk music (Paul Robeson, Odetta and Mahalia Jackson were regularly played at home) than with the blues. Since taking on Thunder, she's purchased and listened to scores of blues CDs (including several of Cain's), and spent hours at JJ's blues lounge in San Jose. Her love of blues music has blossomed, along with her admiration for Cain.

"I think the Rep is going to bring him back every year, in concert," she says. "He needs to play at home more."

Chris Cain just smiles and, interview finished, heads back over to the piano.

Thunder Knocking on the Door opens Friday (Dec. 5) at 8pm and plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm (with an added show Dec 23 at noon), Saturday at 4:30 and 8pm, and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Dec. 28 at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $16-$32. (408/291-2255)

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From the Dec. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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