The blues may come from pain and loss, but the Piccolo musical revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues is expected to be a foot-tappin’, hand-clappin’ good time.
Director Art Gilliard says it’s a party and points to his favorite song from the show, “Members Only.”
“It’s so inclusive,” he says. “It tells you anybody can be a member of the club.”
Of course, in the grand tradition of the blues, it’s a broken hearts club, but much like other blues songs, the commissary comes with an undeniable rhythm.
It’s not what’s traditionally accepted as musical theatre, Gilliard notes, with little dialogue and over three dozen songs. But then the blues isn’t really your traditional good-times genre. The show is billed as a musical journey from the roots of blues in Africa to the urban blues scene of Chicago. A lot of people are unfamiliar with blues’ origins, Gilliard says.
Janis Joplin once said “Audiences like their blues singers miserable.” It’s fair to say some of the most powerful songs stem from the worst of times.
“When the slaves were being snatched, it was painful, they were confused and frustrated,” he said. The songs gave their feelings of misery and confusion a voice that carried across plantations. Many of the first blues songs came from field hollers. Later, the power of blues would enter the church and give emotion to spiritual gospel songs.
The song “Strange Fruit,” famously performed by Billie Holiday, is about the lynching of a black man, but those bluesy feelings of pain, loss, and mourning build incredible and beautiful music.
The blues wasn’t limited to blacks either, Gilliard says. European whites traveled over as indentured servants and experienced their own struggles, accompanied by the banjo, and those voices are also incorporated into the show.
The blues can also be hot, and there’s hardly a better example than the classic “Fever.”
“This rendition shows ‘Fever’ is a pulsating, hot song,” Gilliard says.
The blues lets us lament the loss or longing we all share, while lifting us out of it together. Like “Members Only” says you may have lost your woman, you may have lost your man, but it’s time to party. —Greg Hambrick
IT AIN”T NOTHIN” BUT THE BLUES • Piccolo Spoleto’s Theatre Series • $20, $15 seniors/students • (2 hours) • May 29 at 3 p.m.; May 31, June 8 at 6 p.m.; June 2 at 8 p.m. • Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St. • 554-6060