Fort Worth — Jubilee Theatre’s latest music revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, full of fine voices and backed by a smoking hot quartet, is an especially gutsy, emotion-packed expression of a genre this company does well. There are rhythms, words, and visions here—beautiful, brutal, funny and deep-down sexy—that won’t let go of you for a while, and that’s as it should be.
We meet in a shabby Chicago blues bar (Rodney Dobbs’ detailed set design, down to the Jax beer sign and the cracked plaster, gets it right), with neighborhood folks coming in for a night of music. Time seems irrelevant: the view out the bar window screams 1970s, but the clothes are vintage ‘30s and ‘40s wear (costumes by Amy Poe). But with a sudden downbeat, we’re somewhere else altogether. A centuries-old African chant, call and response, rings out in a language we don’t know…but it’s not hard to read the emotions of a people stolen from their world to be enslaved in another.
It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, directed by TCU professor Robert Michael James and based on an original idea by the late singer/actor Ron Taylor (with book/lyrics/music by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Taylor and Dan Wheetman—by way of Robert Johnson, W.C. Handy, Trixie Smith, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and many other talents), made a splash on Broadway during the 1999-2000 season. It takes us from the earliest roots of American blues in the world of enslaved Africans, to the many branches of its spread into American culture.
Centuries ago, African song mixed with country dance music, church hymns and field work “hollers.” Out of that blending came blues styles named for the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City and ultimately Chicago—the electrified end of the river road that led north from the former slave states. There’s a blues strain in Texas swing blues, in cool California jazz blues, in gospel, rhythm ‘n blues, and in rock ‘n roll both in the U.S. and across the water, where British boys of the 1960s fell hard into the muddy waters of American blues.
The cadence of African chant is still heard in “Blood Done Signed My Name,” a modern song heartbreakingly sung by Darren McElroy and Brittany Jackson — and deepened by Van Williams’ well-chosen, sometimes devastating photo projections showing the life of slaves who worked from “can’t see to can’t see.” Gordon Pope literally hammers home the point with the chain-gang chant “Raise ‘Em Up Higher,” a heart-pounding, heavily rhythmic lament of men at the infamous Parchman prison farm in Mississippi. And Contessah Irene adds new layers of feeling with a resonant “Danger Woman,” telling the story of African-American women who fear the white men who “keep hangin’ around.”
Though we think of “the blues” as an endless song of sadness, Jubilee’s cast makes us remember that blues music can sound every note of human life, from despair to joy. There’s anger, mourning and protest—but life and happiness break through even in the hardest times.
Jimmy Crump takes a funny turn in songs aimed at the ladies, both in “Black Woman,” a take on the “pretty woman, walk my way” tune that turns up over and over, and in the cajoling “Come On in My Kitchen.” Wallace Atkins leads “T for Texas” (there are better examples of Texas blues) but it’s just loopy enough to make us laugh. The ladies come back strong, with Contessah blazing in “My Man Rocks Me” and Brittany powerful and sassy, sitting on the piano for a soaring rendition of the classic man-stealing song “St. Louis Blues.” Melinda Wood Allen touches on the spread of blues into “Anglo” music in “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” — and hilariously chucks her good-girl image for a strutting “Now I’m Gonna Be Bad.”
Gordon is terrific in Robert Wood Johnson’s hell-fiery “Cross Road Blues” — and that song is the perfect last word before Brittany pushes back with the passionately religious lyric of “I know I’ve Been Changed.” Devil at the crossroads, meet the gospel of Jesus. Jimmy follows with the “do better” words of “Children, Your Line is Draggin’” — and the whole company (which also includes ensemble players Nyeshia Hollins and Crystal Williams) hopes the whole world will “Catch on Fire” with a passion for the Lord.
It’s intermission—a perfect time to say something about the band.
A quartet of musicians fill a sizeable corner of the onstage space, led by music director/conductor Steven A. Taylor on piano, with Darrin Kobetich on guitar, Ray Flippen Sr. on bass and Demetrique Henderson on drums. They’re so good that after a few songs, something odd may happen: you’ll get distracted by the band. They’re that spectacular, shifting from one blues style to another with total ease, adding distinctive, sometimes intricate riffs that make good songs better, and the great ones blow us away.
The show’s second half has different costumes (jewel tones and sparkle) and a great lineup of songs, but a more scattershot feel — maybe because the blues came to inform so much of our music it’s hard to pick and choose. Highlights include the familiar — Jimmy and Gordon with a swinging “Sweet Home Chicago,” Darren’s sizzling “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” Contessah’s soul-baring “I Put a Spell on You” and Melinda’s Nashville-bluesy “Walking After Midnight” — with some real surprises: Contessah’s bye-bye wave to a playing-around man, “Someone Else is Steppin’ In,” along with the ladies ensemble in a lively take-charge dance number, “Wang Dang Doodle” (just one of many places where director James’ background as a choreographer shines through). The outer edges of the blues world are well represented by Wallace and Gordon’s “Goodnight, Irene” and Melinda’s softly soul-baring “Fever.”
We can’t give away too much of the show’s final moments. It’s enough to say that one devastating and unique blues song stops our hearts and gives Brittany a last chance to shine in Nikki Deshea Smith’s gleaming, smoky lights. But the next song begins to build a sense of community and hope — and the company swings finally into a reprise of the great blues anthem, “Let the Good Times Roll.” From bitterness and death to life, connection--and dancing.
That ain’t nothin’ but the blues.