ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 18, 2003
By Steve Newton
Many music fans have discovered the beauty of the blues while uncovering the roots of rock, yours truly included. Twenty-some-odd years ago I got set on that course by a pedal-steel guitarist and country-bluegrass performer named Smokin’ Joe Michno. As a dedicated hard-rock freak, I remember hounding this guy—who was also a music teacher—to show me how to play the solo in Molly Hatchet’s “Flirtin’ With Disaster”.
He’d just roll his eyes and hand me his well-worn copy of The Best of Elmore James, but at the time my pea-brained self couldn’t grasp the connection between the blistering lead breaks of my rowdy southern-boogie heroes and the simplistic slide guitar heard on James’s scratchy ’50s recordings. Nowadays, all similarly pea-brained rock fans need to understand the relationship between the two music forms is a copy of this brilliantly conceived five-disc package.
Released three months back to coincide with the PBS series of documentaries executive-produced by American director Martin Scorsese, the boxed set is a masterful statement on the history of the blues. It opens with a Luther Dickinson–produced performance by Mississippi’s Othar Turner & the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band and ends, 115 glorious tracks later, with a Keb’ Mo’/Corey Harris duet on Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” taped in New York last April.
In between are a multitude of deathless classics, way too many to list here. Highlights include tracks from the ’20s by such seminal wonders as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Blake; ’50s tunes by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley; ’80s numbers by Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, and Robert Cray; and brand-new contributions from Cassandra Wilson, Los Lobos, and Bonnie Raitt.
Martin Scorsese Presents… includes a 60-page booklet with insightful commentaries on each contributing artist, and a preface by the director himself. “If you already know the blues,” writes the film great, “then maybe these selections will give you a reason to go back to it. And if you’ve never heard the blues, and you’re coming across it for the first time, I can promise you this: Your life is about to change for the better.”