Wednesday, October 24, 2012

We Juke Up in Here! reviewed by Mark Thompson

 We Juke Up in Here!
Various artists
Broke & Hungry Records
Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc.
DVD – 57 minutes
CD- 15 tracks/48:14

Juke joints have been a major part of the history of blues music. In the early days, legendary blues performers like Robert Johnson and Son House regularly performed in backwoods shacks on weekends so that the local African-American population had a place to go to blow off steam, dance and forget about their hard scrabble existence. This culture prevailed for decade after decade, enjoying a revival in the 90's when musicians from the Mississippi hill country like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough brought world-wide attention back to the Delta area and renewed interest in the juke joints.

In 2008, Jeff Konkel of Broke & Hungry Records and Roger Stolle, founder of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, took a week-long trip to the Delta region where they interviewed some of the best musicians working the jukes, men like Big George Brock and  Robert “Bilbo” Walker. The material they gathered was used to create an award-winning documentary entitled M for Mississippi.

Feeling like they had only told part of the story, Konkel and Stolle, along with film-maker Damien Blaylock,  made a return visit to the area last year to shift their focus to the juke joints and the people who operate them. What they discovered is a dying culture under siege from the economic downturn, the growth of casinos in the Delta region and a lack of jobs in the smaller communities that restricts the amount of cash that is available to support local businesses. Many of the jukes still in operation have switched to having DJs to play music instead of a live band, figuring that hiring one DJ instead of a 4-5 piece band is a smart business decision.

One man bucks the tide. Red Paden, owner of Red's Lounge in Clarksdale, MS, has been dedicated to providing a home for blues music for more than thirty years. Paden has owned a number of clubs over the years, one of which was the Red Wine. Konkel & Stolle take Paden back to the club, now closed, and Red takes great pride in describing how he manage to make the Red Wine the place for music, effectively shutting down the competition. But Red's Lounge has been his mainstay location, where Paden books genuine blues bands every weekend.

The DVD includes scenes from his club with bands laying down a relentless rhythm designed to fill the dance floor. Anthony “Big A” Sherrod drives that point home on the first track on the CD that is part of the package. Backed by James “Jabo” Nelson on bass and Frank Vick on drums, Sherrod exhorts members of the audience to get up and dance with anybody close by as he belts out the title cut and adds some of taut guitar licks. A second track finds “Big A” bragging his lovemaking abilities over a driving rhythm track. Big A & the All Stars are featured on several extended clips on the DVD.

The changing juke culture is highlighted when Stolle and Konkel visit Po Monkey's Lounge in the middle of a cotton field near Merigold, MS. Owner Willie Seaberry has been in the business for 55 years and wants no part of the hip hop clientele. While he remains committed to the blues, he hires DJs to provide the music for his patrons. Seaberry says the area around the club was once filled with other jukes that were eventually torn down. He survived because he keeps a  tight rein on things. The same conditions exist in Shelby, MS where the Do Drop Inn has also shifted away from live bands.

Paden gets space to expound on his philosophies of life and his passion for down-home music. He admits to losing a step to age but still gives musicians like Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood a chance to sing and play guitar for an appreciative crowd. His solo version of “Get Rich and Marry You” is a highlight of the cd. Big George Brock talks about the clubs he used to run in the St. Louis area while Terry “Harmonica” Bean relates that as he travels through Europe, he finds plenty of people who know about Red's Lounge. Shots  throughout the DVD show a predominately white audience. Bean delivers an intense performance on “Baby (Do Anything for Me)” that typifies the juke style as he sings, plays guitar and plays harmonica on a rack.

One final trip takes viewers to the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, MS where Jimmy “Duck” Holmes tries to book blues or R&B bands every other weekend. Holmes will often get things started by playing a short set of brooding acoustic blues, as witnessed by his original tune ”Could've Been Married” on the CD. Other musicians featured include Robert Lee “Lil' Poochie” Watson on guitar and Hezekiah Early, who manages to play drums and harmonica at the same time. They generate a lot of heat on “You Know I Tried”. Elmo Williams and Early acknowledge the role of alcohol in the juke culture on “Jug of Wine”.

This package offers a fascinating look at a culture that is a century old and now in danger of disappearing. Konkel and Stolle don't offer any solutions – nor do the various owners and musicians interviewed. Stolle does note that the traditional blues culture has lost its appeal to the traditional black audience. Whether anything can be done to preserve the culture remains to be seen. In the mean time, grab a copy of this package, get educated about juke joints, enjoy some raw, blues music and start planning your trip to Red's Lounge !!

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

No comments: