Lightning in a Bottle
You’d have to look far and wide to find a concert bill filled with as many impressive blues and other popular music artists as the February 7, 2003, Radio City Music Hall concert “Salute to the Blues.” Among the featured guests were Allison Krauss, Angelique Kidjo, Mos Def, Natalie Cole, and India Arie as well as Odetta, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Solomon Burke, and B. B. King. The two-CD set is the soundtrack to the Martin Scorseseproduced film of the same name. Constructed as a blues trip from Africa to the Delta to Chicago, then spreading out to include blues branches as far-reaching as rap, the album is a stirring testament to the current vitality of the music.
The first striking element is its pristine sound. This is a set so bright that Angelique Kidjo comes right into your living room with her soaring “Senie Zelie,” which begins the concert. The artists stay right there with the listener through B. B. King’s closing “Sweet Sixteen.” This is partially due to a relatively stable house band that lends some unity to the sound. And many of these players are already icons: Dr. John, Levon Helm, Ivan Neville, Danny Kortchmar, and Steve Jordan are among the house band members.
There are enchanting and endearing moments, astonishing revelations, humor, and pathos on Lightning in a Bottle. Avant-garde guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer plays and sings a straight-ahead version “Sitting on Top of the World” with Allison Krauss’s fiddle recalling the importance of the instrument in the Mississippi Sheiks’ original version of the song. Odetta brings the civil rights struggle into the present with her concise but powerful introduction to “Jim Crow Blues.” Natalie Cole tries to distance herself from the blues -- as many popular African-American artists have done over the decades -- by saying “I don’t know why I’m here.” But then, drawing on the style of Dinah Washington, she sings a rousing “St. Louis Blues.” Cole also joins blues-based singers Ruth Brown and Mavis Staples for the humorous “Men Are Just like Street Cars.” David “Honeyboy” Edwards’s acoustic “Gamblin’ Man” is a Delta delight. Buddy Guy’s acoustic “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and his electric “First Time I Met the Blues” show this giant’s versatility. Solomon Burke delivers the soul of the blues like no other; the listener can almost see his luxurious cape being removed as he heats up “Turn On Your Love Light.” Contemporary blues artists Shemekia Copeland and Robert Cray give “I Pity the Fool” the fire and ice of Bobby Bland’s original interpretation.
In many roots music tributes, rock artists come off as if they were looking in the mirror rather than connecting with sounds that laid the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll. That is not the case with Lightning in a Bottle. John Fogerty is so humble in introducing “The Midnight Special” that he says “I hope I don’t mess this up” before performing a joy-filled and totally appropriate version. There could be no better rock stars than Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to cover the braggadocio and sexually charged “I’m a King Bee.” Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar on Elmore James’s “Coming Home” is true to both the roots and the fruits of the blues. Chuck D’s performance, in contrast to the other hip-hop artists on the bill, is both smart and interesting. The rapper turns John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” into an antiwar anthem, “(No) Boom Boom.” While keeping the drive and beat of the original, Chuck D and the band move in and out of tune, taking its intensity to new heights.
The net proceeds from the concert, the film, and this recording go to the Blues Music Foundation, which supports blues artists who have fallen on hard times or never made it to the big time. That generosity and the spirit of these tribute CDs make this monumental album a deal that no one should turn down.