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This documentation of the Scorsese-catalyzed 2003 Tribute to the Blues concert at Radio City offers a bumper crop of tasty bits. Performances both lighthearted and smokin’, backstage interviews, and archival footage projected on the hall’s JumboTrons create an energetic gloss of blues history. Credit for compelling montaging goes to director Antoine Fuqua, who moves things beyond hero worship. We get a snip of Odetta admonishing the band for drowning out Ruth Brown (the fur-fezzed Brown, who regained her voice after a stroke, cracks, “I’m so glad to get the gig, I’ll scream!”); a sit-down with robust raconteur Solomon Burke, who describes the sub-chitlin “neckbone circuit”; and a B.B. King recollection of getting heckled by a young crowd. Training Day‘s Fuqua conjures kinesis where possible considering he’s dealing with some real old folks—not to mention an audience whose overwhelming paleness can’t help but trigger reflection on the racial politics of blues fetishization.
Rock partisans get a bone with the inclusion of John Fogerty and Aerosmith, who boogie energetically but hardly thrill. And neo-soulers are placated with contributions from India.Arie and Macy Gray. But if heyday glimpses (a clip of Hubert Sumlin backing Howlin’ Wolf) sometimes trump present-day tribute (Sumlin backing David Johansen, who camps up “Killing Floor”), highlights include a jam on “Voodoo Child” between a torqued-up Angélique Kidjo and a delighted Buddy Guy, and a Shemekia Copeland–Robert Cray duet on Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “I Pity the Fool.” Coif awards go to James Blood Ulmer’s topknot dreads, and Natalie Cole’s growing-out weave, which she caresses while growling a line about store-bought hair.