Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A memorable weekend: Blues Divas and Handys

(Originally published: November 1, 2004)

In just three years, the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., has showcased scores of talented black musicians and singers, many of them with roots in the Delta. Located in a renovated warehouse near the old train depot, the club has become a cultural institution - perhaps even the most important blues club in the world - made possible by the generosity and commitment of actor Morgan Freeman and attorney Bill Luckett, who own the club and who want to present African American roots music that has changed the world.

Last weekend, Ground Zero welcomed the Blues Divas: eight gifted performers who have influenced modern music in many different ways. They're so talented that calling them just blues singers doesn't begin to describe their versatility.

From Friday evening to Sunday evening, in addition to the blues, you heard soul music, soul-blues, folk and gospel, and sometimes a singer would go from one genre to another, from one moment to the next, as the audience listened in amazement.

Taking over Ground Zero for eight hour-long shows, several of the divas came down from Memphis after they appeared at the Beale Street Music Festival and the W.C. Handy Awards. Deborah Coleman, Bettye Lavette and Reene Austin had performed in Memphis twice, and Odetta had attended the Handy awards show, where she was nominated for traditional female blues artist (amazingly, she didn't win). Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles and Denis LaSalle were the other Blues Divas, although they're more soul singers than anything. Miss Staples, and probably the others, too, sang gospel since she was a child. Freeman introduced the singers as cameras from Mississippi Public Television recorded this important cultural event.

The program will also be available on DVD. We heard most of the performers, starting with Ms. Lavette, who won a well-deserved comeback award at the Handys. She has been around for more than 40 years, having first recorded when she was a teenager. She's a soul singer with deep roots in gospel, like most of the divas at Ground Zero. Ms. Lavette puts her heart and soul into every song, backed by an energetic band. When she sang a tearful "Let Me Down Easy," her old hit, the audience was beside itself. (Check out her live CD with the same title.) She was followed by Irma Thomas and her New Orleans band, and she, too, had the crowd in the palm of her hands. That's how it went for much of the weekend: Emotional music that 50 or so people in the club always found gripping.

The audience more than doubled for Mavis Staples, who sounds better than ever. She, along with her dad Pops and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha, created American soul classics in the 60s and 70s. Mavis and Yvonne sang many of their hits at Ground Zero, including "Respect Yourself," with a little assistance from Morgan Freeman, who did a credible duo with Mavis, and "Touch a Hand," when the sisters reached out and touched the hands of their fans. Odetta sat at the front table, and Mavis bowed down to her, calling Odetta the greatest of them all. Odetta sang early Sunday afternoon, mixing blues and protest songs, addressing her audience if she were performing in their living room and telling them to do right and help the less fortunate.

She has traveled many a lonesome road in her long career, and she will keep marching on as long as there's injustice in this world. Although she is in her 70s, she sounded as youthful as ever. (See box below left.) Ann Peebles was the big surprise of the weekend, belting out her hits from the early 70s, as well as new compositions, including "I Can't Stand the Rain," which was a bigger hit for Tina Turner and which John Lennon considered one of the greatest soul songs of all time.

Listening to her at Ground Zero, you can see why. Ann Peebles is a major performer deserving of wider recognition. "The Best of Ann Peebles: The Hi Record Years" is one of the great soul collections of all time. About the only thing one would have wished for was hearing the divas sing together.

Several were at the club at the same time, and an impromptu duet would have been nice, like the one with Mavis Staples and Morgan Freeman, only even better.

Thank you, Clarksdale.


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