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Friday, October 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Misha Berson
The best thing about this film of an all-star 2003 Radio City Music Hall concert is, perhaps predictably, the still-sizzling power of elder statesmen and stateswomen of the blues.
What a treat it is to see Mississippi bluesman David "Honeyboy" Edwards in fine fettle in his 80s, singing and strumming a rough-hewn rendition of "Gamblin' Man."
And Odetta and Mavis Staples giving alternately shivering and scorching renderings of (respectively) the protest blues "Jim Crow Blues" and the old spiritual "A Dying Man's Plea."
And R&B queen Ruth Brown, recovered from a major stroke in time to lay down the law in the no-nonsense tune "Mama He Treat Your Daughter Mean."
With Seattle mogul Paul Allen, his sister and associate Jody Patton and filmmaker Martin Scorsese serving as executive producers, and Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") directing, "Lightning in a Bottle" has a clean, smooth look and a clear, hearty soundtrack.
The film also captures some sweet and peppery offstage interactions between artists and old friends, with a great nod to raconteur soul man Solomon Burke. And there's one genuinely spontaneous onstage moment when Bill Cosby surprises Brown, Staples and Natalie Cole, in their ribald trio version of "Men Are Like Streetcars," by appearing onstage as their boy toy.
The snippets of blues history wedged into the concert are fine, if a bit perfunctory. And was it really necessary to make the blues tent so big? Here, there's room for awkward performances by such out-of-place interlopers as Aerosmith rockers Steve Tyler and Joe Perry, a distracted Macy Gray and India.Arie, whose rendition of "Strange Fruit" isn't in the same musical cosmos as Billie Holiday's.
Relax, blues mavens. Just let all that extraneous stuff slide by, and remember that a few worthy young and middle-age blues icons like Shemekia Copeland Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and a surprisingly groovy Angélique Kidjo are on hand too. And so are enough senior bluesmasters (Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown) to really make your day.
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