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The great blues hope

Can a PBS series on the struggling genre bring it back to life?

Congress may have loftily designated 2003 the "Year of the Blues," but out in the real world, the blues scene is struggling.

You rarely hear a blues song on the radio, and it's hard even to find the CDs in stores. Sales of blues records this year dwindled to only 1 percent of the US market, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures.

Locally, the House of Blues in Cambridge just closed after an 11-year run, further reducing opportunity for blues acts. Johnny D's and Harpers Ferry are two other clubs booking less blues than before.

Yet fans and industry insiders are hoping against hope that a change is coming. Can you say "blues revival" one more time?

You can if you believe that a seven-part PBS series, "The Blues," debuting tonight, will lure a new generation of listeners whose current idea of roots music is old-school hip-hop and funk.

The series is executive-produced by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who directs tonight's opening segment, "Feel Like Going Home," and enlisted such fellow movie directors as Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Burnett to direct other episodes in an attempt to create a personal, and hopefully fresh, vision of the blues, past and present.

Hopes are high that the new series will have the same cultural and commercial impact as Ken Burns's "Jazz" series on PBS two years ago, which revitalized the legacies of such artists as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, whose album sales rose 200-400 percent, according to retailers.

"People are definitely looking for this series to give blues a shot in the arm," says Scott Billington, a staff producer with Rounder Records, which just issued a four-CD boxed set of its blues artists. "There will be a huge onslaught of blues releases coming from every label's catalog. But we'll see how that fares. It may be too much for people to assimilate."

As with "Jazz," the new series was planned with many tie-ins. "There was always the notion that a lot of blues CD releases will come out of this," says series producer Margaret Bodde.

The Sony Legacy label just released a five-CD box, "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey." The box incorporates music from within and without the films. That's in addition to a "Best Of" blues album, a Muddy Waters live record, and DVDs of all seven films, which Sony releases on Oct. 14. Then there's the seven individual soundtrack CDs (four on Sony, three on Universal Records), six more individual artist CDs on Sony (Robert Johnson, Son House, Taj Mahal, Keb' Mo', Bessie Smith, Stevie Ray Vaughan), and a bunch more on Universal (Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, B. B. King, Jimi Hendrix, J. B. Lenoir). "It's a similar model to what we did on the Ken Burns series," says Jeff Jones, a vice president of the Legacy label, who notes that it's already paying off: Seven of the top 15 albums on this week's Billboard's blues chart are spinoffs from the series. We're not talking million-sellers, however. Most blues albums sell well under 40,000, often somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 copies apiece. The biggest seller in recent years was the King/

Clapton CD "Riding With the King," which sold 2 million. And recent charts have been topped by Susan Tedeschi's "Wait for Me," which has sold 211,000 copies. "Even if these films take blues from a 1 percent share to 2 or 3 percent, they'll have had a huge impact," points out Jones. "And to have millions of people watching a Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf or Willie Dixon or B. B. King on TV can't be a bad thing."

Viewers, however, should not assume they're watching a similar format to Burns's "Jazz" programs.

Burns addressed the music chronologically and had a more academic tone, utilizing talking-head interviews that Corey Harris, a host of tonight's first blues episode, says were "too ivory tower."

"The blues series connects the past and the present," he adds. "Burns stopped right after Bird [Charlie Parker] died, and he only briefly mentioned John Coltrane. That was it. We missed out on a lot of what happened in the '60s and '70s."

The blues series does not follow a rigid chronology and gives more latitude to each director. "Ken Burns set the mold. There is always a comparison between our series and his," says Burnett, who filmed the "Warming by the Devil's Fire" segment. "He did a terrific job, but ours is different. It's not one particular vision but seven particular visions."

The new series also hopes to reach more young African-Americans who prefer hip-hop to the blues, which they see as belonging to their parents' generation. "One thing I hope happens is that we stop ghettoizing the blues and bring it to a wider audience," says Harris, who opens tonight's segment in the Mississippi Delta and ends it in Africa. "The Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt gave the blues a second life with white audiences. And maybe this series will help black audiences accept it more."

Harris, a cutting-edge performer who has merged blues and hip-hop in his music, adds: "The reason why young black people don't listen to the blues is that when we remake something, we do it for the moment. We don't dwell on nostalgia. In the white culture, there is a lot of nostalgia."

He says, however, that young black performers such as David Banner, Mystikal, and Master P, along with Outkast and Goodie Mob, are "definitely into the blues. They might not turn on B. B. King, but they're into the blues."

In addition to young blacks' alienation from the genre, there are two stereotypes that the blues must combat: 1) that it's an old, depressing music that nobody wants to hear anymore, and 2) that it's just bar-band music now.

"People have to be more open-minded about the blues," says Richard Rosenblatt, owner of Tone-Cool Records, the Boston-area label for which Tedeschi records. "I think this series will be important because it shows many different sides to the story," he says, referring to the range of acoustic and electric blues that span country and urban sources.

Boston author Peter Guralnick, who scripted tonight's episode and consulted on others, agrees. "You watch the films and you pick up on Otha Turner and see Johnny Shines and follow Skip James and J. B. Lenoir. You're seeing a variety of music that suggests a depth and dimension that no one definition of the blues can give you. The commercial element of this will fall where it falls, but the best part about it is that it will open a genuine debate. No viewer is going to like all segments, but they'll learn there is a broad spectrum of the blues."

"It's good to have more mainstream attention focused on the blues, but I hope people don't think the blues is just something they see on their widescreen, high-definition televisions. It's a live music, and people should go out to see it in person," says Greg Sarni of the Blues Trust, which puts on today's free Boston Blues Festival at the Hatch Shell, starring Mighty Sam McClain, Darrell Nulisch, and others.

A litmus test of how well the series does for individual artists may come in the person of Bobby Rush, who is featured in "The Road to Memphis" episode. Rush is a dynamic, largely undiscovered bluesman who has played the "chitlin circuit" for 50 years but whose soulful, somewhat risque style has been cited as a series highlight.

"I'm so excited and so blessed to be in the right place at the right time," Rush says in a phone interview from Oklahoma. "I'm so overdue. I'm an old man, but I'm a young man, too," adds Rush, who describes his age as "over 66 and a little under 70."

"I think this series is going to have a real kick behind it," he says. "Every once in a while you need people to come in and do that to the blues."

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