Red on Blues

It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues at Portland Center Stage

6/12/12

by Matt Lurie

Unlike just about any other music genre, the blues has an official color. Blue is a lot of things—the color of the sky and the sea, of cornflower and denim, of about one-quarter of our flag—but most importantly, it’s at the foundation of all American music. Named for “blue devils,” demons that were once thought to be responsible for sadness, the blues is the music of the poor, the marginalized, the lonely, and the misunderstood. It’s the sound of the individual: like the blood in our veins, the blues is bluest when it comes from within.

It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues is decidedly colorless, in more ways than one. For Mississippi Charles Bevel, who co-wrote and stars in the play, that’s the intended effect. As he’s quoted in the director’s notes: “the ‘Blues’ does not mean black music. It means having the courage or audacity to speak what is in your heart without consulting your head.”

The Blues certainly has heart. Audacity, not so much.

Throughout its thirty-nine songs, the production aims for breadth over depth. Mississippi and the rest of the cast guide us through a condensed history of blues, from its African roots to Delta blues, Chicago blues, and post-war blues, seemingly ending right before the Civil Rights movement. The selection includes genre-defining classics (“Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Cross Road Blues,”  “Good Night Irene”), controversial cuts (“Strange Fruit,” “I Put a Spell on You”), and even some bluegrass (“My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”) and country (“Mind Your Own Business”).

The veteran cast tackles the music like assembly line workers. All of them are extraordinarily talented and—with the exception of the sometimes-stiff country boy Trevor Wheetman—seem fluent with each other and the material. But for the singers, some of whom have been with the show since its inception eighteen years ago, that comfort rarely translates to fun.

Only when things slow down, and the cast truly pushes a song to its breaking point, does the Blues start to come alive. Sugaray Rayford, on loan from Texas, nearly gyrates “Hoochie Coochie Man” into oblivion, until he flat-out stops the song to proposition a woman in the front row. You almost want to shield your neighbor’s eyes. Chic Street Man delivers an even more dastardly take on John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ King Snake” that’s all slime and steel guitar.

Other experiments are less successful. Eloise Laws’ rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” has half of the aggression of the original, with none of its magnetism. Laws is a phenomenal singer, but playing a sputtering witch, her spite seems directed at the song itself rather than the victim of her love. It was the song I was looking forward to the most, and as I left, I wondered if I was simply misremembering Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ original. A quick YouTube search proved me wrong.

That song—and the blues in general—deserve better than what the Blues can give them. The production tries its hardest to include everyone and everything, and for the most part, achieves that goal admirably. But if you’re like me and you like your blues rougher, deeper and, well, bluer, you may leave feeling a little unsatisfied, or even a little alienated.

Fortunately, there’s always YouTube:

If you’re still wondering what “the blues” is, Howlin’ Wolf puts it best:

A lot of peoples wonder, ‘What is the blues?’ I hear a lot of people sayin’ ‘the blues, the blues.’ But I’m-a tell you what the blues is: when you ain’t got no money, you got the blues. When you ain’t got no money to pay your house rent, you still got the blues. A lot of people’s holler about ‘I don’t like no blues,’ but when you ain’t got no money and can’t pay your house rent and can’t buy no food, you damn sure got the blues.

It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues is a big, roaring crowd-pleaser. The blues—the real blues—ain’t nothin’ like that.