(WASHINGTON D.C.) On April 22nd, incredibly talented performers took the stage at Washington D.C.’s restored Howard Theater to take part in the True Blues Concert, which was documented by filmmaker Daniel Patinkin for an upcoming release on Concord Records.
The night opened with Corey Harris playing “Walkin’ Blues” solo. One-by-one he was joined by the evening’s other performers. First, Phil Wiggins on harmonica followed by Guy Davis walking out with an acoustic guitar. Next Shemekia Copeland took the stage joined by her guitarist Arthur Neilson. Then Alvin Youngblood Hart joined the crowd and finally the Taj Mahal Trio, making it a full band nine musicians strong, taking turns singing verses. After Taj sang the final verse, the stage cleared for each artist to perform short sets on their own. But it was clear right away, there would be some inspired music in store.
The musicians were gathered for True Blues, a film project in the works from Corey Harris and producer Daniel Patinkin. The concert film will be released on CD and DVD by Concord Music Group in early 2013. Patinkin and Harris also hope to use the concert as a step toward producing a documentary that will examine the lives and music of these and other artists playing traditional blues today. All of the musicians on hand are firmly rooted in early blues and also capable of expanding the genre in various ways. Though the music at the Howard Theater would prove to be more of an exploration of the depths of the blues roots than an attempt to stretch boundaries.
The newly reopened Howard Theater was a perfect venue for the concert, both the True Blues producers and the Howard’s restorers looking back on an incredible musical legacy and finding a place for it in today’s scene. For decades, the Howard was the home of black music in Washington, D.C. The theater had been closed since the mid-eighties but has now been beautifully restored including the original 1910 facade. A predecessor to New York’s Apollo and Chicago’s Regal, the Howard’s probably best known for jazz, but has seen countless blues acts grace the stage. Even with that history, dating back ten years before even Blind Lemon Jefferson had made a record, True Blues might have been the rawest night of blues music ever played from that stage. In the past, the blues at the Howard has been mostly of the uptown variety: Louis Jordan in the 40s, Dinah Washington in the 50s. Of course, B.B. King was a regular. The influences of these performers could be heard at True Blues. But the rougher and rawer styles of Jefferson, Charley Patton, Son House, were also on display, particularly in the performances of Harris and Hart.
The first set came from Guy Davis. Showmanship runs in his family, and there may be no one in the blues more entertaining while standing on stage alone with an acoustic guitar. His set was filled with ribald metaphors in the greatest blues tradition going back to Bo Carter and earlier performers. Corey Harris and Phil Wiggins followed. The two have been playing together fairly regularly since the death of Wiggins’ long-time musical partner, John Cephas. Wiggins’ amazing harmonica solos manage to fit in perfectly with Harris’ deep blues approach on both guitar and banjo. Harris stuck to traditional blues rather than incorporating the Caribbean and African sounds that have dominated his recent albums. Every time I see Phil Wiggins, it makes me miss the piedmont blues sounds of Cephas and there’s no one I’d rather see him play with than Corey Harris. They’re developing a true partnership where each elevates the others superb musicianship.
Wiggins left the stage for Harris to play a solo version of the song simply titled “Blues” that he recorded with a full bland on his 2009 album Blu.Black. Shemekia Copeland then joined Harris for a duet before bringing out her usual guitarist Arthur Nielson for several songs together. It’s a pleasure to hear Copeland in this stripped down context. It emphasizes how powerful her voice is. We’ve heard it before on recordings like “Beat Up Guitar,” which was one of the highlights of her set. Alvin Youngblood Hart played a solo set including a mix of older songs with originals played in a traditional style like “Big Mama’s Door.” Armed with an electric guitar, Hart played with typical soulful intensity.
Hart left the stage to the Taj Mahal’s trio. He was the headliner and many folks in the audience had clearly been waiting all night long for Taj Mahal to hit the stage. Dancers got up in the aisles for the first time as the set opened with the Big Joe Turner/Elmore James classic “TV Mama.” Producer Daniel Patinkin described Mahal as the biggest addition to the project. In addition to a name to put on the marquee, Taj Mahal has had a career that created a template, particularly for Corey Harris. Both men started out recording deep blues before exploring Caribbean and other sounds of the African diaspora. No matter how far afield these explorations get, neither man has ever stopped playing the blues music of their roots. This steadfast devotion to traditional blues seems to be what the True Blues project is about.
After several songs from the trio, all the performers again took to the stage as a group. “Got My Mojo” working was a great crowd pleaser with Phil Wiggins’ harmonica solos stealing the show. The encore was another Muddy Waters’ classic “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” The music was uniformly excellent, so the live CD/DVD promises to be great with additional interviews and backstage footage. Let’s hope the documentary film happens as well.