The only tribute Judge Victor Valdivia expects is for people to say, "Oh, yeah. I remember that guy. Eh."
12 amazing artists and an all-star house band.
One of the problems with tribute concerts is that too often they end up being more about the onstage performers rather than the supposed honorees. The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert: Live in Vancouver has some great moments and songs, but it sadly cannot escape this trap. For all the good intentions behind the concert, it's still only as good as the performances, and those are, sorry to say, patchy.
It's a shame that the show isn't an unqualified success because the music being saluted is enormously important. All but forgotten today, the Mississippi Sheiks were one of the most popular blues bands of their time. Between 1930 and 1935, they recorded some sixty songs, including standards like "Sitting on Top of the World." Such seminal blues artists as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf would cite them as influences and their songs were later covered by Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Cream, amongst many others. Unfortunately, though their music remains significant, the name Mississippi Sheiks is known only to hardcore blues cultists. In 2009, guitarist/producer Steve Dawson aimed to change that with a tribute album dedicated to the band's music recorded with various singers and musicians. The album, Things About Comin' My Way, was a critical and commercial hit that helped introduce the Sheiks' music to a new audience.
It was the album's success that led to this concert. Filmed in Vancouver on March 12 and 13, 2010, Dawson and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Keith Lowe, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and trumpeter/fiddler Daniel Lapp are joined by an all-star cast of singers. Here are the singers and the songs they perform:
• Oh Susanna: "Things About Comin' My Way"
To be fair, there's some good music to enjoy here. The house band that Dawson has assembled is stellar. The musicians all work together spectacularly and they give the music real energy and swagger. The best performances here are also worth seeing. Bob Brozman's version of "Church Bell Blues" is classic gutbucket blues. Alvin Youngblood Hart makes "Livin' in a Strain" into a gritty and soulful ballad. Dave Alvin (formerly of legendary L.A. punk band the Blasters) and Christy McWilson deliver a stellar version of "Who's Been Here" that captures the song's passion perfectly. Dawson himself gets a fine showcase with "Gulf Coast Bay." In these moments it's possible to appreciate the effort that he put into the concert and his intentions in showcasing this classic music.
The problem is that the concert's inferior moments are so poor that they end up dragging the whole show down. Robin Holcomb is the worst offender; she turns "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You" into a tuneless, interminable dirge that has absolutely no connection to any blues of any sort. Van Dyke Parks is as insufferably smug as ever and his version of "It's Backfirin' Now" is so smirky and cutesy that you'll want to turn off the DVD before the first verse is over. The Sojourners' excessively slick harmonies take the bite out of "Sweet Maggie." The other performers aren't quite so painful to watch but they don't add much to their covers, rendering them into little more than note-perfect recitations that simulate blues styles without any actual emotional content. Their reverence for this music is admirable but if they're not going to do much with it, then what's the point? They don't evoke the magic of the original recordings nor do they add anything outstanding. They're just generic, forgettable blues performances.
It's these lackluster performances that make The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert hard to recommend. The truly golden moments are so few and far between that the generally dull and occasionally wrongheaded ones end up overshadowing them. The music of the Mississippi Sheiks is worth hearing but it's a shame that despite Dawson's commendable efforts, this is hardly the best place to do so. You'd do better off to track down a Sheiks anthology instead.
Technically, the anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and Dolby stereo mix are both stellar, with no flaws to speak of. There are no extras.
Guilty of not providing much more than good intentions.
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