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Blues Bash

Mugge returns to Mill Valley Film Fest

By Greg Cahill

Filmmaker Robert Mugge really didn't know much about Bettye LaVette when Alligator Records owner Bruce Iglauer invited the award-winning documentarian to catch the singer last January during a comeback concert at a Chicago blues club. LaVette, a sinewy 58-year-old songstress who scored her first R&B hit in 1962 at the age of 16 before slipping into obscurity, proved a revelation even to blues buff Mugge.

"Bettye just blows you away with the drama of her performance," he says of LaVette during a phone interview from his production studio in Clarksdale, Miss. "She's like an actress inhabiting a role. She either paces or dances across the stage and just gets so deeply into these songs--she begs and pleads and cries. You're just almost overwhelmed by the emotion of it all."

Thanks to Mugge--who has included LaVette in an upcoming eight-part public television series called Blues Divas--a lot of folks are going to fall under LaVette's spell. North Bay audiences will get a chance to preview two installments in the Blues Divas series--one featuring LaVette, the other showcasing folk-blues legend Odetta--when they premiere at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 13-14.

The programs mark the long-awaited return of Mugge to the Mill Valley event. Over the years, he has become the most prolific, and arguably the most proficient, documentarian of American roots music. Among his credits are such critically acclaimed films as Deep Blues, which first introduced mainstream audiences to the Fat Possum label artists; Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson; and Last of the Mississippi Jukes, all of them insightful films that have allowed Mugge to explore the musical culture of the fabled Blues Corridor, running from Memphis to New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta.

His latest project, Blues Divas, enlists such incredible blueswomen as Odetta, LaVette, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Deborah Coleman, Denise La Salle and Renee Austin--to serve as tour guides. Filmed in the heartland of the blues in Clarksdale, Miss., at actor Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero nightclub, the two hour-long films presented in Mill Valley incorporate recent concert footage (shot during one long weekend) and intimate interviews conducted by Freeman, a Clarksdale resident and fellow blues buff.

In addition to LaVette's powerhouse performance, Odetta--a legend of the '60s folk revival who has continued to delve into deep blues--is captured in concert weaving songs by Victoria Spivey, Bessie Smith and other blues giants with colorful backstories, all set to sparse piano accompaniment.

Mugge points out that the series title, Blues Divas, fits these talented, but underappreciated, performers quite well. "Many of them just have a regal air about them that lets you know you're dealing with a queen," he says. "They know how good they are, they know what they've accomplished. The society may not have recognized their contributions to the extent that it should, and in this current pabulum youth culture that passes for popular culture, these women may be totally on the fringes, but they know history will record how good they are.

"One of the reasons I'm doing this series," he continues, "is because it's criminal if they are not documented doing what they are so brilliant at."


'Blues Divas: Bettye LaVette' screens on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 7pm; 'Odetta' screens Thursday, Oct. 14, at 9pm. For details, go to www.mvff.org. The Sweetwater Saloon salutes Mugge's films with a Blues Diva night of its own on Oct. 13 at 9pm with Sugar Pie DeSanto. 153 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. $20. 415.388.2820.


Spin Du Jour

Various Artists, 'The Centennial Collection' (BMG/Bluebird)

BMG Records kicked off this impressive reissue series in April to mark the 100th anniversary of the births of two jazz giants: Fats Waller and Glenn Miller. But the CD/DVD series--culled from the vaults of RCA Victor and Bluebird, home to some of the most legendary jazz recordings of all time--has expanded to include double-disc anthologies by Duke Ellington (which include previously unreleased Blanton-Webster material), Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw. For the most part, these digitally remastered, 24-bit tracks span the early to mid-20th century, including vintage 1927 recordings of a young Ellington and the familiar WW II-era big-band hits of Miller. However, the real star of this series is the DVD material, drawn from film appearances, short subjects, rare TV spots and live European concert footage. The remarkable film clip of Benny Goodman rehearsing and performing at the 1966 Belgian Jazz Festival with a small combo that featured trumpeter Doc Cheatham alone is worth the price of admission.

--G.C.

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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