Film Review: Troubadour Blues Reaches Out To Touch Us All
by Terry Roland
Director/Producer Tom Weber’s film, Troubadour Blues, has fulfilled a vision while it has done a public service by shinning a light on the well-worn, often unnoticed road of today’s singer-songwriters. The centerpiece of the film is the story of veteran folk singer, Peter Case, who is presented as a musical everyman representing what may be a disappearing breed of storytelling troubadours in the Woody Guthrie tradition, who are not in it for the glory, riches or any of the usual cliches fallaciously associated with the musician’s lifestyle. Peter Case, leads an impressive cast of companions of the road including Mary Gauthier, Chris Smithers, Mark Erelli, Slaid Cleaves, Dave Alvin and Amy Speace. What is most clear is throughout this fine documentary is these artists are on the road for the love of the song and the chance to perform to intimate audiences across America. Weber has rightly linked them to the ancient troubadours of medieval Europe and to the folk & blues singers active in America during the early part of the 20th century. The film has been crafted with minimal technical support using the cinéma vérité single camera style most identified with music documentarian D.A. Pennbaker. The major strength of this film, which overcomes any technical limitations presented by a small budget, comes from the trust and bond apparent between the filmmaker and the artists captured during interviews and performances. Keeping to authenticity, the concert scenes were not staged for film, but the camera is there like a third eye documenting the dynamic moments and exchanges of story and song. Through this Weber makes it clear that the singer-songwriter isimportant to our culture today as they take us on a journey of self-discovery that is vital to us all as individuals and a society.
Included in Troubadour Blues is the story of prolific singer-songwriter, Dave Carter, who made two albums before he died of a heart attack in 2002 on the road with his partner, Tracy Grammer. One of the highlights of the film is the cross-cutting between clips of Chris Smithers and Tracy Grammer performing Carter’s “Alligator Man.” A scene which attests to the revelation of truth and reality inherent in the craft of songwriting is Mary Gauthier’s interview about Dave Carter and the song she wrote in tribute to him, “Wheel Inside The Wheel.”
The film takes us full circle from the birth of the songwriter, the life that follows, the creative surrender to the chase of the song, their own mortality and finally it leads us to the resurrection and redemption found in Peter Case’s successful bypass surgery in 2009. His first performance at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in southern Ohio in August of 2010 shows him humorously and defiantly singing, “People in hell want ice water.”
During the course of the near decade of film documenting Case’s road performances he loses his familiar boyish hippie folk singer look to evolve into a character resembling a bearded Dave Van Ronk with shades and fedora looking as if he had been out in the blues-wilderness-streets for months eating nothing but locusts, wild honey and chasing down a song with the help of the ghost of Lightning Hopkins.
The last scenes of the film follows Case to the beach in Topanga as he talks about how he reinvented himself as an electric bluesman captured on his 2010 release, Wig. As continues to listen to what’s deeply rooted inside, rather than getting religion, it seems his creative soul only reverberates stronger through the music and the song he follows and then brings back to his audience. “It’s about making magic happen in everyday life,” he says. Indeed. And if this is true, then Tom Weber’s film has gone a long way toward capturing that magic and showing us the challenges and joys of those whose lives are dedicated to bringing the songs to us. In so doing, it seems, they return us to our own road home.