One sensational guitarist (Sam Swank), two powerhouse bluesmen (Akin Babatunde and Cavin Yarbrough), four savvy backup singers (Lillias White, Alisa Peoples Yarbrough, Benita Arterberry, Timothy Parham), and some 60 songs by legendary blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson are enough to make any blues lover go weak at the knees. Just about everything else that contributes to “Blind Lemon Blues” — including the unfocused narrative, corny choreography and hit-and-miss costuming — is easily forgiven.
Blues-starved Gothamites can thank their European cousins for a quickie look (through Feb. 25) at this songbook entry celebrating the prolific career of blind street musician Jefferson. Show preemed two years ago in Switzerland, went on to play France, and is making what is, in effect, a goodwill stop on its way back to Europe next month for a ten-city tour of the Netherlands and Belgium.
Plenty of Americans, of course, are familiar with the soul-grinding sensibility of this Texas bluesman. “I listened to the music of Blind Lemon every day for five years,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson has said about the artist whose music resonates throughout his plays. “Blind Lemon Jefferson was the voice of black America at that moment.”
That voice emerges with full force in a powerful performance by Babatunde. Although he has spread his talents thin here (multi-functioning as playwright-director-choreographer-musical arranger, as well as star), he has a true affinity for the man and music he pays homage to.
A huge man with a wide vocal range, Babatunde handily brings out the astonishing textures of Blind Lemon signature songs, from the menacing love complaint “Shuckin’ Sugar Blues” and the surreally existential “Matchstick Blues” to the haunting “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” But his solid acting chops also give substantial character dimension to the man he’s playing — a man of some mystery, as it turns out.
Show’s narrative duties, diffuse and often confusing though they be, are handled with aplomb by Cavin Yarbrough, who is downright charming as Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter. After opening the show with a “Midnight Special” that would melt the cold iron of a railroad track, this sweet-voiced tenor guides the show from song to song, filling in with the few details known about Jefferson’s life.
As legend has it, Blind Lemon played his guitar on the corner of Elm Street and Central Avenue in Dallas before he was discovered by a talent scout for Paramount Records and went on to become the biggest-selling country blues singer in the U.S. One of the show’s few extended dramatic scenes has the musician standing his ground on that famous corner, engaged in a musical turf duel with Blind Willie Wilson — engagingly captured physically and vocally by the versatile Yarbrough.
Efforts to bring other blues greats of the period into Blind Lemon’s life story are less successful. But that doesn’t stop the multi-talented ensemble members from making the most of their moments.
White is a two-fer show-stopper as Bessie Tucker (in “Butcher Shop Blues”) and Lillian Glinn (in “Cravin’ a Man Blues”), while Alisa Peoples Yarbrough, Arterberry and Parham wittily channel the legendary likes of Hattie Hudson, Lillian Miller and Bobbie Cadillac. Blues lovers, be grateful. Be very, very grateful.