BWW Review: Arizona Theatre Company Presents LOWDOWN DIRTY BLUES ~ Rousing, Rocking, and Intoxicating

BWW Review: Arizona Theatre Company Presents LOWDOWN DIRTY BLUES ~ Rousing, Rocking, and Intoxicating

She rolls like the Mississippi and her sinuous swells carry the history of a people's music and the narratives of their daily hardships and yearnings from the Mississippi Delta through St. Louis and on to Chicago.

She is Felicia P. Fields, starring as Big Mama, proprietor of South Side Chicago's Home of the Blues and the leader of fellow juke joint musicians Shake Anderson, Chic Street Man (guitar and vocals), Calvin Jones (bass), and Steve Schmidt (keyboard).

Together, they put the sass, sex, and verve into Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman's LOWDOWN DIRTY BLUES, the intoxicating and rocking revue that is shaking up Herberger Theater's Center Stage through April 22nd.

Fields is a dynamo on stage, capable of shifting gears from fast and loose in salty renditions of Alberta Hunter's Rough and Ready Man and Denise LaSalle's Don't Jump My Pony to the heartfelt strains of Good Morning Heartache (originally recorded by Billie Holliday) and Elder Atkins' Lord I Tried.

Her counterparts play off her teasing ways with equally suggestive songs such as Lightnin' Hopkins Mojo Hand and Elmore James' Shake Your Money Maker.

In Crawlin' King Snake (first recorded by Big Joe Williams and then becoming a Billboard hit by John Lee Hooker), Chic Street Man is pure reptilian, slithering across the stage, strumming his steel guitar and declaring the rights of a man who rules his den. In every song that he sings and in his periodic commentary on the music, he evokes a matter-of-factness and authenticity that make him a particularly accessible on-stage presence.

Shake Anderson adds a powerful dimension to the trio ~ a raw and pulsating sexuality. At one moment, he may appear submissive to and bewildered by Big Mama's dominance. In another, he demonstrates the range and depth of his talent. In Son House's Death Letter, his heart ruptures with anguish as learns of the passing of his lover. His body shivers in a paroxysm of grief as he views her body at the morgue. This is an awesome performance of a soul unleashed.

And therein ~ in these remarkable and rousing performances ~ lie the force and eternal value of these classics. Not solely because of their daring content and infectious rhythm. Yes, the interpretations by Fields and company range from sultry to boisterous, from saucy to solemn. They're loaded with double entendres and innuendoes that titillate the audience. Their narratives of resilience and hope are genuinely moving. They provide, all told, grand and fulfilling entertainment.

But, at their heart, they also constitute a genre that uninhibitedly and honestly spoke to taboo subjects. Once marginalized and deprecated but ultimately revered with a revival in the '60's, this music informed and influenced the development and evolution of rock and roll and the fame and fortune of the individuals and groups that built on its foundations (Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Lennon, Clapton, to name a few).

These songs have a history. They constitute a slice of the broader genre of the blues which Myler and Wheetman revealed in their earlier musical It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues. Now, honing in their low down and dirty side, we can revel in their fiery glow.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of LOWDOWN DIRTY BLUES runs through April 22nd at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.

Photo credit to Tim Fuller

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From This Author Herbert Paine

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