Tonight’s The Story of the Blues tells the tale of one of Black America’s most celebrated and influential contributions to popular music through a combination of archive film footage, spoken narration and live performance. Put together by Hastings’ own Green River Blues Band, the town’s Printworks venue is absolutely packed out for them.
Having a fascination with this genre, both in its original country blues acoustic format and its later electrified form (not to mention the influence it had on both American rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s and the British beat groups of the 60s) this was always going to be a must-see for me as soon as I saw it advertised. I was a little worried that if the band didn’t quite get the tone right that, however accomplished they are as players, we might end up with something that ends up being over-romanticised and shall we say a little saccharine Opening with Sam Cooke’s 1961 hit ‘Working On The Chain Gang’ I thought we may be at risk of going down this route but any notions that they might not pull this off are soon dispelled. Narrator Jonathan Linsley talks us through the early roots of the blues starting with the shameful brutality of the slave era and the spirited songs of defiance that arose from that. The film footage that plays on the screen behind reveals a highly moving montage of images, from the almost impossible to absorb images of slave-sale stores on US high streets through to footage of some of the heroes of the emerging blues scene in action. The six-piece Green River Blues Band deliver a passionate and skillfully-played set taking us through early songs like ‘Take This Hammer’ and ‘Pick A Bale of Cotton’ through to later songs like ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Between songs narrator, Jonathan Linsley gives us glimpses into the lives of some of the performers like Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson.
After a short interval and the band are back one stage, the acoustic guitars now being replaced with electric. Now we move later into the mid-twentieth century, the band presenting us with timeless classics like ‘Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. Of course, though these remain well-known classics today by the 1960s many of the songs, and certainly many of the performers, had fallen into obscurity – until, of course, picked up, adapted and re-popularised by a bunch of middle-class white boys on the other side of the Atlantic. The show touches on this and clearly this was the entry-point for where the blues came into the lives of the guys on stage tonight.
The show celebrates the songs and those who created and performed them while pulling no punches in terms of the poverty, the hardship and, often, the brutality of the environment that the blues sprang out of. A moving and passionate celebration of the genre the biggest surprise is possibly that this is not some slickly-produced show that regularly tours the country but that tonight is strictly a one-off, put together out of love with all profits going to a local good cause.
If the Story of The Blues were to be rolled out beyond a one-off night in Hastings Printworks, however, I am absolutely certain it would find appreciative audiences in many venues. The Story of The Blues is a genuine triumph for those who put this together.