September 23, 2004

Test Spin: Lightning in a Bottle

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Recorded at Radio City Music Hall in 2003, the original soundtrack recording to the Martin Scorcese-backed film, Lightning in a Bottle, attempts to provide the listener with a “a one-night history” of the blues. Featuring a wide assortment of blues, R&B, and popular artists, ranging from B.B. King to Macy Gray, Steven Tyler to Chuck D., Mos Def to Warren Haynes, the concert is supposed to provide an easily accessible introduction to those who have previously had no introduction to the blues.

Coincidently, the double-disc set brings a whole new meaning to the term “easily accessible” as an unofficial count establishes that at least five artists on this album have previously either opened or guest-performed with the Dave Matthews Band. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with such a fact. Buddy Guy provides spirited, almost convincing, renditions of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “First Time I Met The Blues,” while Angilque Kidjo’s voice delicately dances around the primordial (read: roots) “Senie Zelie” and the primal “Voodoo Child.”

But, as with all too many tribute albums, the music on Lightning in a Bottle comes across as an over-the-top attempt to glorify the artists of the present while discounting the true experience of the blues. The emotive processes of personal acknowledgment and listener commiseration that makes the blues “the blues” are unfortunately nowhere to be found on this album. If the true litmus test of the blues is to make the listener empathize with the misery of the singer but at the same time feel slightly better about the human condition, the disc falls far short.

And until next time, this humble reviewer will be attempting to shake the mental image of myriad well-meaning, PBS-watching, suburban professionals staying at home on a Friday evening to pat themselves on the back for learning about a vital part of “America’s musical heritage.” As one of these people, I know for a fact that there’s better blues out there.

Archived article by Matthew Nagowski
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer