24 March 2005

Heart and ass

I'm gambling that this weblog has few enough readers that weighty Friends aren't likely to see this week's title. (And those who do won't lobby the Quaker powers to have my recording revoked!) I just loved this simple description, given to me by a friend in Atlanta, of what great art needs: both heart and ass, both spirit and funk, both earnest aspiration and a knowing grin. And in God's mind (the mind of our wonderful Creator, who gave us Jesus and on Easter gave him back to us! - and who let us survive our encounter with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), who knows -- maybe the "and" is superfluous, as long as the heart rules.

What got me to thinking about great art needing both elements? Last night, I spent my birthday evening watching my birthday-gift DVD of Lightning in a Bottle. (See below, October 14.) No music better exemplifies this formula than the blues. For me, no music makes such a visceral connection between ear and heart, no music transports me from the very first note the way blues can. It's not exactly carnal in itself -- the kick sets in long before image or thought can catch up and make additional connections -- but it is easy to see that the music is well-suited to carry messages of ... well, sheer physicality and its attendant temptations. (Oh, Johan, you write so delicately!)

There is a heart-purity about this same power, which seems connected to those musical progressions that require flattened and bent notes, unexpected bumps, unbounded soaring notes, piercing staccatos, and all those other blues devices that also have their equivalents in all ecstatic music. (I don't have the musical background to verbalize this, but Sergei Rakhmaninov, for example, certainly knew funk from the inside.) That same directness of ear to heart gives Gospel music its power. As a teenager, long before I met Jesus, I remember playing Edwin Hawkins' Singers' "Oh Happy Day" over and over, just fascinated by the power. When the singer and choir went around that bend into the final straightaway and totally let loose, I caught a tiny taste of eternity. Now I can see how the 24 elders of Revelation 4 could more than enjoy their sole task of praise.

Lightning in a Bottle puts all this power into one concert. There is almost no explicit nod to the Gospel roots. (Mavis Staples, who personifies the connection with the highest possible credentials, sings "See that my grave is kept clean," and that's about it.) But the concert as a whole, a lush and low-key affair, does manage to honor both heart and ass amazingly well. Through both its sheer range of headliners and the quality of the house band (Dr. John on the piano, for starters), the film presents the high musicianship and endless inventiveness that are possible, though not always found, within blues.

By "low-key" I mean that the film pretty much stays out of its own way. It cuts in a few bits of interview and a few rehearsal scenes, but otherwise we just get raw music presented through the eyes of many well-placed cameras. (The mixing is, for some reason, not as good as on the soundtrack album.) During the concert itself, on-stage videos let us enjoy several participants who did not live long enough to experience "the year of the blues," 2003, of which this Radio City Music Hall concert was a part. John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters had to be there. Howlin' Wolf was also represented by his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and Muddy Waters is linked to the present day through his guitarist Buddy Guy. Buddy's own winsome performances, including his trademark showoff fretwork and look-at-me smile, are some of the high points of the DVD, whose bonus tracks include his "First Time I Met the Blues" cut that didn't make it into the movie. But the film does include an amazing encounter between Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix. That little clip, and Buddy's performance of "Red House," helped me see the link between Jimi's stratospheric guitar-bending and Buddy's (to my mind) far more meat-and-potatoes style. Both are rooted in a true, liquid virtuosity.

Lightning makes all sorts of other delightful connections. I wouldn't have guessed that John Fogerty would be a great choice to perform Lead Belly's "Midnight Special." Among others who cross musical and (perhaps more accurately) marketing lines are Alison Krauss, Odetta, Natalie Cole, Chuck D., and veterans of the Aerosmith and Allman Brothers bands. Generational lines are crossed when Shemekia Copeland introduces and performs with Robert Cray, "a man that held me in his arms when I was a little girl ... he probably doesn't remember that." They do a wonderful version of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "I Pity the Fool."

Shemekia is probably the youngest of Lightning's performers. She says that she grew up in the hip-hop era and chose the blues. She grew up in a blues family, so it was a natural choice, but the fact is that she and Keb' Mo' (and even Robert Cray) are at the very young end of the performers' age spectrum. I hope this film does its part in expanding the reach and longevity of this most elemental music, with its amazing, dynamic balance of those primordial elements of great art: rooted in God, authentically embodied.


Joe G. said...

Great post about your love and devotion for the blues. I find the "heart and ass" in gospel music, particularly traditional black gospel (as opposed to the more generic, pop stuff put out by major labels).

Heart & ass - of course both should be involved with art and life - God made both after all! :))

Johan Maurer said...

Gospel music is the best! Perfect illustration of the theme, even though piety might not encourage quite that blunt a way of putting it.