Lightning in a Bottle
Autumn 2005 Documentary series
Monday, September 26, 2005 at 7:00pm
Rated PG ·
Since 1903, when W.C. Handy heard a man in a train station slide a knife across the strings of his guitar, the blues has slowly emerged from its roots in African-American slave songs to become the sophisticated popular art form we know more than a century later. Handy was one of the first people to transcribe and publish the music for a blues song and, only a few years later, the recording industry was alerted to the potential of “race records” when Mamie Smith, the first black woman to record a blues vocal, sold more than one million copies of “Crazy Blues.”
As the music moved north to Chicago and Detroit, transplanted artists like Muddy Waters exchanged their acoustic guitars for electric and pumped up their sound with drums, harmonica and stand-up bass. Electrified blues with a beefed-up bass got people to dance; R ‘n’ B and rock ‘n’ roll were soon to follow. In the sixties, a new generation of British musicians like the Rolling Stones covered their idols Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, creating a brand of rock saturated with blues influence. No ordinary concert movie — but what a great concert movie— Lightning in a Bottle is the record of an amazing evening at Radio City Music Hall in 2003, when a host of artists paid tribute to the blues. Legendary performers contribute to this history, from Angelique Kidjo’s African opener “Zélié,” Mavis Staples’s gut-wrenching “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” Keb’ Mo’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and Solomon Burke’s recollection of singing “Down in the Valley” to hostile white audiences in the South. The backup band features Levon Helm, Dr. John, Danny Kortchmar and the legendary Buddy Guy.
Lightning in a Bottle combines archival footage, backstage banter among blues giants, song rehearsals — including Ruth Brown’s incredible “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” — and phenomenal performances. The final highlight is B.B. King: at eighty, he’s in great voice and “Lucille” is as solid as ever. This film rules.