Low Down Dirty Blues – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

When it was first performed, Low Down Dirty Blues was a musical revue of raucous, gritty, gut-bucket, good-time, dirty blues that ran for roughly 80 to 85 minutes, without intermission. It was set late at night in a Chicago Jazz joint when most of the customers had left. Its cast consisted of two female singers, two male singers, one with a guitar, and all supported by a piano player and a bass man. Since then, things have developed.

Now with two males and one female lead, and a running time of two hours, plus intermission, this Arizona Theatre Company production is currently in performance at Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix, and the first thing that strikes you is the set.

Scenic designer Vicki Smith has gutted Herberger’s traditional proscenium arch main stage and turned it into something akin to the city’s most comfortable looking black box theatre. Big Mama’s cramped South Side Chicago jazz joint, complete with lighted neon signs, a block of frosted glass windows, a mirror ball, and a worn, wooden door upstage center that’s in desperate need of some fresh paint, is there before us, all on a raised platform. The theatre’s arch is gone. There’s also a row of chairs and tables at the foot of the platform for those late night customers who just won’t go home, positioned where Herberger’s apron usually sits. The whole construction looks authentic; you can practically smell the aroma of alcohol wafting out into the main stage house from a lived-in set.

Then bass player Calvin Jones and piano player Steve Schmidt enter, followed by guitar player Jelly (Chic Street Man), all of whom start playing, paving the way for the grand entrance of Big Mama (Tony award nominee Felicia P. Fields) who, in a sparkling red dress, enters through that worn door, walks straight up to the mic center stage, and bursts into Willie Mae Thornton’s flirty, jelly rolling, They Call Me Big Mama. “Try that at home sometime,” she tells the ‘audience’ seated around the tables before her at the conclusion. The style, the setting, and the evening is set.

Low Down Dirty Blues may be a concert-styled jukebox musical in the vein of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill or even Million Dollar Quartet, but unlike those productions where the songs were punctuated either by anecdotes or an arc of a thin story, this ATC production is interested in only one thing: a recreation of singing some low down, after-hours, dirty blues at Big Mama’s that takes us past midnight into early morning. There are no introductions that give the songs perspective; what’s spoken are mostly anecdotes previously stated by those ground-breaking blues musicians of the past. Thus, when Shake Anderson enters, before he performs his first number, Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign, with no introduction of who he is or why he’s there, he goes straight into the story of a boy who worked a job on a soda truck to earn enough to buy a harmonica, only he was fifty cents short. It’s a real-life tale printed on the cover of Junior Well’s 1965 album, Hoodoo Man Blues.

When Big Mama talks of having to get on her hands and knees while scrubbing floors in wealthy, North Shore homes, it’s not a fictional account written for her character, she’s quoting The Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, who cleaned floors for rich white folk during the day while singing the blues at night. And when Big Mama sits back in a chair for a well deserved rest and states, “I been in the blues all my life. I’m still delivering ‘cause I got a long memory,” she’s quoting Muddy Waters.

For the most part, the emphasis is on flirty humor, and some eye-rolling, very funny innuendo, all with nothing more in mind than having a good time. When Big Mama sings Denise LaSalle’s Don’t Jump My Pony she’s bouncing on a grinning Shake Anderson’s lap while declaring with a sense of comical ecstasy to the gods above, “Speak to me, Mr. Ed!

But there comes a moment of darkness in the humor regarding the music and its presentation when meant to appeal and be accepted by a largely white audience. In the way that Fats Domino’s blues influenced rock ‘n roll hits of the fifties received radio airplay only when covered by a bland, white-washed version by Pat Boone, Big Mama tells a similar story of what happened when watching The Lawrence Welk Show on TV. It took her almost two minutes to recognize a blues number sung by the wholesome sounding Lennon Sisters. “And I wrote the song!” she declares. It’s funny, but it’s also a reflection of something disgraceful.

But with that section and its laugh comes a moment of anger. Guitar player Jelly mentions Ed Sullivan, declaring him as the son-of-a-bitch who in his 40 year TV career never invited a real blues singer to perform on his show. It’s a criticism that seems perhaps overly harsh considering that Sullivan took huge, professional risks when he ignored the threats of his sponsors and his TV execs by inviting blues singer Pearl Bailey on his show, or the wrath of anger of his mostly white audience when he kissed Pearl on the cheek and shook hands with guest Nat King Cole. When Sullivan died, among his pallbearers carrying the casket was Louis Armstrong. But when Jelly states, “If I gotta sing it like somebody else, it ain’t worth me singing at all,” those bland Pat Boone song covers spring back to mind. You know exactly where that anger is coming from. And you understand.

But what you’ll leave the theatre with more than anything else is the sound of the blues ringing in your head. And it’s something quite extraordinary. In addition to songs already mentioned, when the full cast perform songs like If I Can’t Sell It (I’m Gonna Keep On Sittin’ On It Before I Give It Away), Nobody’s Fault But Mine, and I Got My Mojo Workin’, it’s like witnessing a joyous celebration that makes you feel like leaving your seat and joining in. When Jelly talks of Chicago blues and how it differs from the blues of the south, then goes into Robert Johnson’s Come On in My Kitchen on a steel guitar, it’s as if the sound – haunting, ethereal, spiritually dangerous as if the devil himself had a hand in it – seems to rise from the very depths below. “Listen to that wind howl,” he states. It’s the kind of dirty blues played when the players had no money.

Though maybe the most anguished and agonizingly effective performance of all is Shake’s version of Son House’s Death Letter, sung seated, where he tells of a letter delivered to him early in the morning, informing him of the death of the woman he loves. It’s a performance that’s nothing short of gut wrenching, one that can only be followed by Big Mama’s rendition of Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache.

When you hear the blues, you’re hearing something so emotionally encompassing, it’s as if there’s no other sound in the world. And that’s how you hear it performed in Low Down Dirty Blues. Like the haunting sound of Jelly’s steel guitar rising from the depths below, observing Felicia P. Fields, Shake Anderson, and Chic Street Man perform at Big Mama’s is like being a spectator to something that has risen from the past and brought to life before you. Is it great theatre? Not really, but there’s no other forum that could present an evening like this quite so effectively. And as Big Mama asks before she makes her final exit, “Did you have a great time?” Before the sentence is even concluded, the answer is a foregone conclusion.

Picture Courtesy of Tim Fuller

Low Down Dirty Blues continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until April 22

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