Director Randal Myler and musical director Dan Wheetman have explored music and songs in evocative corners of the culture for many years. They created Almost Heaven: The Songs and Stories of John Denver; Fire on the Mountain, with the songs of Appalachian miners; Mama Hated Diesels, which explored the lives of long-distance truckers; and their best-known collaboration, It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, which began life as a school touring show at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 1994 and went on to productions in New York and beyond. Now comes their latest offering, Low Down Dirty Blues, playing at the Lone Tree Arts Center.
The blues obviously aren’t a niche phenomenon; they tell a crucial American story. They have throbbed and sung beneath the surface culture of this country for generations. For a long time, these songs moved into the mainstream only once they’d been adopted by such well-known white artists as Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. In Low Down Dirty Blues, Big Mama says that she once heard one of her own compositions sung on television and it took her several minutes to recognize it.
The premise is that the Chicago club where five musicians performed for the evening has closed for the night, and they're staying behind to play and chat, which makes for a relaxed, low-key, freewheeling and improvisational evening that we — the club’s late-night stragglers — are privileged to witness. The musicians are singer-instrumentalists Felicia P. Fields as Big Mama, along with Shake Anderson and Jelly, aka Chic Street Man; Calvin Jones plays bass and Jameal Williams is on keyboard.
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Low Down Dirty Blues has no plot, though every now and then a performer provides a brief bit of autobiography — not his or her own, I think, but culled from the lives of famous blues singers. I’m ashamed to admit that I recognized only one of the evening’s two dozen numbers — Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come.” But the other songs — evocative and surprising, brought up from somewhere deep within the singers — were fascinating discoveries.
Big Mama presides over the action, and she’s killer. Strong, sexy, poised, authoritative, she rivets the eye while her powerful voice excites the ear. And when Jelly sings "Crawlin’ King Snake," she shivers herself right into a full-body silent orgasm. Given Jelly’s insinuating, sexy delivery, we’re right there with her. “King Snake” isn’t the only innuendo-filled song; Big Mama wants to tell us “My Stove’s in Good Condition” — and you wouldn’t believe what seems to happen when she lights a match. And “Don’t Jump My Pony (If You Can’t Ride),” she insists. Shake is just as rollicking as Big Mama, with a warm, roomy voice you want to crawl right into. And all three singers have something wicked to say about a “Big Leg Woman.”
The second act begins sexy, too, but modulates into darker places. Shake weeps for the loss of his love in “Death Letter.” Jelly’s “Change Is Gonna Come” is filled with quiet emotion, and it breaks your heart.
But I promise that the evening won't leave you sad. You’ll be on your feet clapping and swaying, because these performers are so irrepressible, stylish and full of life, giving you the privilege of witnessing a hymn to joy, sexuality, grief, changing fortunes and life itself pulled from the depths of the American experience.
Low Down Dirty Blues, presented by the Lone Tree Arts Center, 10075 Commons Street in Lone Tree; performances at 8 p.m. Friday, October 26, 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, October 27. For more information, call 720-509-1000 or go to lonetreeartscenter.org.