3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Director John Sayles’ latest film, “Honeydripper,” is set in an imaginary Alabama roadhouse in the early 50s, when rock n’ roll was taking root and the electric guitar became a dominating instrument. The songs in “Honeydripper” are Hollywood blues — Instead of Charlie Patton or Big Bill Broozy, most of the music is made by actors playing musicians (Danny Glover) or musicians pretending to be actors (Mabel John). But Sayles didn’t get to be a successful director by cutting corners, so he also wisely enlisted current artists who can exist in the moment (Keb Mo, the New Beginnings Ministry), while mixing in legends who recorded in or around that period (Memphis Slim, Hank Williams). The result is another winner in the Rhino Records catalogue.
“Honeydripper” comes out swingin’ with “Honeydripper Lounge” by the Aces of Spade. It’s barely over a minute long, but sets a high standard for what follows. It borrows the jump blues energy of Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” with low-lying, guttural sax, tinkling piano, and has a punchy sax duel between Billy Novick and Gordon Beadle. A second instrumental, “Tall Cotton,” dwells in the realm of down home southern roots music. Mike Turk’s mournful blues harp blows slow and easy, like a sharecropper laboring on a hundred degree day. Turk picks up the pace, and the bare feet start stompin’ on the porch. Turk’s playing takes on shades of harpists yet to come — Magic Dick, Paul Butterfield, Brownie McGee and Little Walter. And how about Tim Jackson on jug for percussion?
Former Ray Charles Raylette Mabel John bellows out the CD’s first vocal, “No Matter How She Done It.” Mabel’s laconic, casual, as if she’s curled up on a wicker chair performing for a few friends around the cracker barrel. Mabel’s not a great warbler, but she can talk trash, and Sonny Leland’s got his Jelly Roll Morton juke joint chops in order. The lyrics are rhyme for the sake of rhyme, but there’s enough good-natured mayhem to keep you pleasantly occupied: “I know a girl by the name of Mary Lou, she shook so much she had the German Flu…” “You women don’t have to worry ‘bout your life, she made Jack the Ripper throw away his knife.”
The New Beginnings Ministry, a current gospel group, provides the soundtrack’s moral center. In the 50s and even today, blacks looked to God for an answer to life’s inequities (psst…big guy, we’re still waiting). “Standing By The Highway” is down by the riverside gospel, affecting, dedicated, the real deal. These folks believe the answer to everything lies in their faith. They’ve found the Holy Spirit, (you can tell by all the Amens), and the more the Maker affects the singers, the tighter their performance gets. The subject matter may not move you, but the way the Ministry’s voices interlock to form a wall of righteous sound will.
The New Beginnings Ministry steps up to the pulpit a second time with the hand-clapping “You Got To Choose.” You gotta love the underpinning of the bass vocal against the chorus. My mother played piano in a gospel group in the 60s that rehearsed in the living room at our house. They had such energy, presence and harmonics that the walls shook. We’re talking about people who were teachers, house wives, security guards and maintenance men by day, not pros. My Uncle Albert and Mrs. Overstreet were the bass singers. Whenever Mrs. O. took over I listened in earnest, and I briefly understood that some people really could communicate with a higher being – especially if they believed he/she came from within.
While its true a lot of black artists listened to and even played “country” (for Hee Haw’s sake, why?), none would have been allowed to share the stage with Hank Williams at the Grand Ole Opry in 1947 for a verse of “Move It On Over,” so it’s inclusion is curious at best. Nevertheless, scratch it on over, tote it on over, slide it over, sweep it on over, this is great country swing in its original form, eons before George Thorogood barroom-ized it. Hank may have had sobriety issues, but he knew how to write a hayseed hip swinger.
Billie Holiday must’ve listened to Lillian Lil’ Green because she sounds just like her with just a skitch less helium. Green’s 12-bar blues, “Why Don’t You Do It Right,” was recorded in 1941 and would later be a hit for another legend, Peggy Lee. Lil’ Green only lived a lil’ while (she died of pneumonia at age 34) but is still considered a female blues pioneer. She’s got some mileage on her nodes, which might grate on you after a few bars, but her band cloaks any long-term affects. The acoustic strumming is effectual against the quick fills of piano. Now I know where Leon Redbone got the idea for his guitar playing.
“Stack O Lee” was recorded live by Keb Mo’ and is given a more traditional reading than Lloyd Price’s sanitized pop hit, the Clash’s Ska vignette, or the Grateful Dead’s rambling mugging. The storyline tracks a disagreement between two pals that turned fatal. Mo’ summons smoke from his National guitar and sounds like a young Taj Mahal (who coincidently recorded his own version of the song). Keb’s also a competent blower on the harp and gives this a ghostly touch of a bluesman who’s sold his soul to the devil. He’s no Taj on vocals, but his playing will hit you like the shot that felled ole Stack O Lee.
Tyron “Pine Top” Purvis, owner of the Honeydripper Lounge (played by actor Danny Glover in the film), makes a courtesy appearance in the recording booth with “Goin’ Down Slow.” Actors who don’t normally sing just shouldn’t. You can tell its Glover right away and he’s probably never sung a blues song in his life. He enunciates every syllable – just like an actor would. It’s like having the late prim and proper thespian Raymond St. Jacques read “Beetle Bailey.” Danny’s not awful, just out of his comfort zone, and at times he sings with a lisp like Sylvester the Cat. You’ll be saying, “Sufferin’ succotash!” Sonny Leland’s piano rolls are worth listening to, though.
When you put together a movie soundtrack the genuine article will ultimately outshine the pretenders, no matter how commendable they are. Such is the case with Memphis Slim’s “Bertha May.” What’s this? A doorbell as accompaniment? No it’s a Celeste. The idea of substituting a Celeste for the guitar part in what would otherwise be a standard blues riff is genius. With the exception of some distant piano, the Celeste is the only instrument you hear: “Early this mornin’ I heard the lonesome church bell tone. Early this mornin’ I heard the low down church bell tone. They brought me the sad news, my Bertha May was dead and gone. Never miss my baby, I never missed her till she left my door. Never miss my baby, until she left my door. Breaks my heart to think I’ll never see her face no more.” This is what the blues is all about, genuine misery! John Sayles thought so too. When he heard “Bertha May,” it inspired the funeral scene in the movie. “Drive slow, Mr. Undertaker, please drive slow. You know I never miss my Bertha, until she left my door.” Despite the cheery effect of Celeste, you can tell Slim is shattered. He took Bertha May for granted and now it’s too late to tell her how much he loves her, something I can certainly identify with. You’ve got to hear this to believe it. The first time I listened to “Bertha May” I had to replay it three times in order to absorb all the hurt. If you start thinking about your own Bertha May (or Bert) then you know a song’s hit you in the jugular.
Gary Clark, Jr. (who plays Sonny in the film), has been compared to Texas guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn. I can’t vouch for Gary’s helicopter crash survival skills, but he ain’t no Stevie Ray. Jimmy Vaughn, perhaps, but he’s no where near as electrifying as SRV. In the first of three spotlight songs, Clark tears into “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” gospelized by Wynonie Harris in 1948, and popularized in rockabilly form by Elvis in 1954. Clark’s got more wattage than you’d expect from a bluesman. I’m not totally buying the lively Jackie Wilson pop voice and the Chuck Berry riffs mixed together with the blues either. It’s a bit of a train wreck because drummer James Cruce’s modified shuffle seems to be something no one else can get a handle on.
Clark takes his second shot at stardom with “China Doll,” which was co-written by director Sayles. If you don’t like Clark’s showy histrionics (and I’m afraid I don’t) two songs in a row may not help, despite Eddie Shaw’s raw sax. Harp player Arthur Lee Williams also seems to have found his voice, and piano player Sonny Leland goes Jerry Lee Lewis at the end. Clark plays a Hound Dog Taylor run as part of the rhythm instead of assaulting the listener with a full Alvin Lee catch-me-if-you-can speed riff. This time he works more within the context of the band when he solos. Still, he sounds as if he’s Xeroxing the music of the era instead of feeling it.
Giving Gary three songs in a row is a real momentum killer, especially since “Blue Light Boogie” is a dance that only induces a trance: “They did the boogie real slow with the blue lights way down low.” They sure did. Shut them lights off, Gary. “Blue Light Boogie” is a showstopper for all the wrong reasons.
Piano player Tom West lays down a boogie woogie intro reminiscent of Pinetop Perkins and keeps the fills comin’ in “Music Keeps Rollin’”. Duke Levine can bend the strings with the aplomb of Albert Lee. (Duke Levine? How’s that for a cool name for a bluesman. No, I don’t think so either.) But it’s all for naught whenever Barrence Whitfield opens his trap. This guy sings like Elvin Bishop with out any of the naughty fun ol’ Elvin had. He sounds like he’s gargled with quick dry cement and he’s only got there seconds left before it hardens. Great music to keep rollin’ by, but good luck blocking out Whitfield’s Tom Waits on battery acid vocal.
The muted trumpet, drunken clarinet and dribbling piano provide an excellent backdrop to Ruth Brown’s otherwise forgettable “Things About Coming My Way.” Ruth has sounded better, and no wonder, it was the last song she recorded before passing away in 2006. “Things” has a bit of a New Orleans funeral march feel too it as well, celebratory and sad at the same time. But Ruth sounds too worn out; you may love her Dramamine vocal, but nothing exciting came my way.
I’ve often claimed to be a stickler for authenticity. Artists who play the blues should sound like they’ve lived the blues. Memphis Slim, Keb Mo, Mabel John and Lil’ Green certainly qualify. Hank Williams and the New Beginnings Ministry may not fall under the category of the blues, but expertly represent other types of music from a bygone era. In an effort to meld today’s rock with the music of its infancy Gary Clark misses the mark, which is a shame, given his prominence on the soundtrack. (Maybe he’s a better actor). But don’t let a sour bee ruin your good time, honey. Listen to your inner blues chile and dip into the soundtrack to “Honeydripper.”