Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Blues Festival With Some Charisma

Ann Arbor is the perfect town for a blues festival because the University of Michigan is there. Blues is black music, of course, but even the blues festival at the University of Chicago, situated on the edge of the last great blues-bar enclave, the South Side ghetto, attracts an audience that is predominantly white and well-educated. This situation causes white blues fans some dismay, for underlying all their perfectly sound talk about the universality and distinctive artistry of the great bluesmen is an exemplary racial dilemma.

Some white blues aficionados like all black music, from Scott Joplin and Charlie Patton to Ornette Coleman and the O'Jays, but most are purists who find themselves implying, by their tastes, that the black people who produced this music they love don't know what's good any more. For reasons that range from defensible aesthetic prejudice to the baldest one-upmanship, the typical blues head canonizes only certain artists, identified by period or region or style, or in any case limits the canon to "true" bluesman--no r&b, no soul, no jazz, and no white performers.

In 1969 and 1970, the University of Michigan financed student-run blues festivals in Ann Arbor. Both featured only blues artists, from Delta relics like Son House to Luther Allison, one of the few black bluesman under 35. Both festivals lost a great deal of money. The basic problem was an all-blues program that could not draw the necessary 10,000 or so patrons, especially when publicity was inadequate, and many of the 5,000 or so who did attend slipped under the cyclone fence or entered with stubs passed on by their cohorts. In 1971, therefore, there was no Ann Arbor Blues Festival. This void moved a local rock promoter named Peter Andrews to conceive the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972. Andrews believed that broader bookings and more efficient organization would mean profits. But no student organization would back him.

Like many medium-sized cities that surround elite universities--Berkeley, Cambridge, Madison--Ann Arbor is also the home of many young freaks, drop-outs, and drop-ins who are attracted by the congenial cultural ambience but not by the structures of academia. More than the heterogeneous big-city bohemias, such neighborhoods include contingents of relatively articulate and political counter-culturists who are moved by the possibility of making a counter-community. With the possible exception of Berkeley, however, Ann Arbor is the only location where such a community has shown real signs of materializing. The difference is John Sinclair.

Sinclair's career as a troublemaker began in the mid-60s in Detroit, where he founded an avant-garde artists' cooperative and quickly became the city's most visible hippie dope fiend. In 1967, he was busted for possession of two joints. Sinclair claims the arrest was a political frame. His sentence was 9½ to 10 years, which for two joints looked political enough, and by the time Sinclair went to jail in 1969, so did Sinclair. His cooperative had evolved into the White Panther Party, which like Rubin Hoffman's Youth International Party functioned locally in Northern Michigan, where Sinclair's charisma remained powerful.

Unlike most counter-politicos, who fake it, Sinclair always has been intensely involved with music. He perceived the same life-giving energy in the best blues and rock and roll as in the post-Coltrane jazz that was his deepest enthusiasm. For several years he managed a hard-driving local bar band called the MC-5, transforming them into symbols of the incipient revolution around Detroit and then going onto a major record contract and nationwide publicity in 1969.

Sinclair really believed that the high energy of the 5 could revolutionize young America in a massive media blitz. The music was powerful, but its crudeness was more than most teenagers were ready for, and Rolling Stone, which might have made a difference, was already so overtly hostile to radical politics and any place that wasn't San Francisco that it did a hatchet job instead. Then Sinclair went to jail.

Last December, 28 months after Sinclair was incarcerated and four days after Stevie Wonder and John Yoko headlined a massive protest rally for him, Michigan's marijuana law was declared unconstitutional, and Sinclair was freed. The White Panthers had become the Rainbow People's Party and had moved to Ann Arbor. Their lack of national success, both with the MC-5 and with various urban outposts, had convinced them to concentrate their high energy locally. In April, they elected two candidates to the Ann Arbor City Council, and until Michigan could redraft its statute, the penalty for possession of cannabis was reduced to a $5 fine. With Peter Andrews, a corporate arm was formed. Free concerts featuring local bands were produced. And then a young kid who had just inherited some money offered it to Sinclair, and the Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 became an exclusive project of the Rainbow Corp.

This was real hip capitalism, not the hairy greed-freak variety, which is to say that it was also tough-minded communalism. The student festivals had enlisted volunteers to cut costs for the cause of blues, and they bollixed it. Rainbow Corp. paid its workers two bucks and hour and got work out of them--a handsome and impenetrable wooden fence erected around the open site, sane security from the Psychedelic Rangers, excellent lights and video. The sound system was sub-par and maybe next time Ma Bell would consent to some pay phones, but those were the only drawbacks. The food deserves special description. Although it was mostly organic and vegetarian, there was chicken and Coca-Cola, the price of which was quickly scaled down to compete with apple juice. A delicious whole-milk yogurt was flown in from California. A beer license was obtained, then went unused because Rainbow knew that many patrons would be popping downers, which don't mix with alcohol. Everything was delicious, even the carob brownies, and it all made money.

But the booking was best of all, a quality blend of the finest blues and blues-derived artists. For $42,000, the cost of one rock superstar, Rainbow hired 25 acts. The largest fee, $7,500, went to Miles Davis, although Aretha Franklin, who is from Detroit, turned down $10,000. B.B. King, the greatest modern bluesman was missing--America is finally paying back his dues, and his price is high--but his old blues-circuit rival, Bobby Bland, made a rare appearance before a white audience. The two kings of the more primitive Chicago style, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, offered exciting sets, and many more stereotyped artists--Mighty Joe Young, Luther Allison, Detroit's own Little Sonny and Lightnin' Slim--offered the kind of solid, danceable music that the form has always provided.

The two white artists who were featured--Dr. John and Bonnie Raitt--both provided ideal examples of the way the blues sensibility can be combined with other kinds of music to produce a hybrid as delicious as a nectarine. Raitt's acoustic guitar, the only one at the festival, complemented the standard "Walkin' Blues" as well as it did Stephen Stills' "Bluebird," and Dr. John came back on to play guitar behind Bobby Bland after his own set. In addition, Sinclair injected a healthy, educational dose of his beloved avant-garde jazz. Educationally, it seemed to work. I tended to enjoy only those artists I already liked--Pharoah Sanders and (especially) Miles Davis--but many fans at the front of the arena (there was no preferential press seating and I was midway toward the back) were obviously enjoying even the very avant-garde Art Ensemble of Chicago. And, indeed, I dutifully bought one of the Ensemble's hard-to-find records, Les Stances a Sophie, and when I got home I liked it a lot.

Next year, Rainbow will try again, on a larger scale, possibly with a summer concert series. I wish them luck. Any corporation that funnels 30 per cent of its profits into other "community-oriented self-determination projects" deserves every penny it can earn. But I'll keep my fingers crossed. Sinclair and all his sisters and brothers have proven that they can succeed where the honkies failed. They really do intend to take over Ann Arbor, and from there? But as Sinclair understands, the big hassles come with the big profits--and, not incidentally, the big white artists with the big fees know how to play to the big audience. Blues developed in bars. It simply does not project over a football field, no matter how accomplished it is. Pleasing 12,000 people with music that invites but never demands attention is one thing. Injecting all of American youth with high energy is another. As I say, I'll keep my fingers crossed.

N'day, Sept. 17, 1972