J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sidemen: The Long Road to Glory

Just imagine how awesome the original Blues Brothers movie soundtrack would have been if it also included Muddy Waters. That had been the intention, but the ailing Muddy was not able to make the shoot with John Lee Hooker on Maxwell Street. However, Muddy’s longtime sidemen Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith can be seen backing Hooker on “Boom Boom.” Still, only hardcore blues fans recognized them. They played on legendary recordings, but Perkins, Smith, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin received their overdue ovations very late in their lives and careers. Scott D. Rosenbaum profiles the three late great blues masters amid their eleventh-hour renaissances in Sidemen: Long Road to Glory (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Let’s make it clear, without Muddy and Wolf, there would be no Rolling Stones, no Eric Clapton, no Jimi Hendrix, and not much rock & roll to speak of. Without Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin, Muddy and Wolf would not have had the same potent groove. The musicians and listeners who really dove deeply into the blues understood their significance, but not casual listeners. As a result, all three found themselves scuffling when their bread-and-butter employers died in the early 1980s. Since Sumlin had always considered Wolf a surrogate father-figure, his death hit the guitarist even harder.

Rosenbaum includes long excerpts of the three legendary sidemen jamming together and with their admirers. He also interviewed each of them at length, so this film has obviously been a long time coming, considering all three men passed way in 2011, within an eight-month span. The film also features appreciations from Johnny Winter and Gregg Allman, both of whom subsequently played their final bars, as well. However, the film gives off positive vibes, rather than wallowing in elegiac melancholy. Nevertheless, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (which Sumlin felt had unjustly overlooked him) comes off looking like a bunch of jerks for not inducting Sumlin while he was still alive.

Their music pretty much speaks for itself—and Rosenbaum showcases it to maximum effect. Still, we also hear from some pretty talented colleagues and admirers, including Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bobby Rush, Elvin Bishop, and Shemekia Copeland, who are all, happily, very much alive and well, who say whatever is left to be said.

If you don’t get Sumlin, Perkins, and Smith (as well as Muddy and Wolf), by the time the too-short Sidemen finishes, you probably never will. You’re also most likely tone-deaf and generally beyond hope as a person. In fact, Rosenbaum has managed to craft a loving tribute that never feels indulgently fannish. He does right by the men who were true to the music for so many years. Very highly recommended, Sidemen opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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