Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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24 Church Street, Box 2452, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 | 508-696-6300

Blues Revue Turns Playhouse Into Nightclub

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

A Chicago blues joint popped up in Vineyard Haven this month, with live music five nights a week. But you’ll need to get there soon if you want to catch a performance because Big Mama’s Blues Club is closing Sept. 7.
 Big Mama’s is the setting for Low Down Dirty Blues, a musical revue playing Tuesday through Saturday nights at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. In two sets, separated by an intermission, the house band and three lead singers take their audience on a wide-ranging tour of the blues.

The extensive song list includes classics such as Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen and Elmore James’s Shake Your Moneymaker, gospel spirituals like Lord, I’ve Tried, the powerful soul ballad I’d Rather Go Blind, made famous by Etta James, and Sam Cooke’s protest song A Change is Gonna Come.

Conceived by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman and directed by Mr. Myler, Low Down Dirty Blues transforms the playhouse stage into a gritty brick-walled bar where Big Mama (Felicia P. Fields), her three-piece band and her vocal partner Southside (C.E. Smith) preside.

The third singer onstage is also the guitarist. Going by the name Jelly, he’s played by the show’s musical director, who performs and records as Chic Street Man.

Backed up by pianist Michael Murray and bassist Michael Massimino, the three lead performers represent three major strains of the blues, each character sharing with the audience their own part of the African-American experience.

Big Mama grew up singing gospel in the church with her father, a pastor who envisioned the pair of them as another Aretha and C.L. Franklin. But she couldn’t resist the lure of the “Devil’s music,” and wound up in Chicago, dressed in red from head to toe and fronting a hot blues band.

Jelly came up from the Mississippi Delta and Southside, true to his name, is from Chicago, where he once saw some “skinny white British dudes” outside the studios of Chess Records. That would have been the Rolling Stones, who wound up mimicking Howling Wolf on television with Ed Sullivan — who never booked an actual blues band in his career, Jelly tells the audience.

“The blues ain’t blue no more. It’s green now,” Southside muses, before singing Willie Dixon’s Spoonful — a song about how everybody’s got something they’ll do anything to obtain: “Men lie about that spoonful/Some cry about that spoonful/Some die about that spoonful/Everybody fight about a spoonful.”

The characters keep their comments brief and the music flowing, often engaging the audience to clap and sing along. As Big Mama, Ms. Fields does even more, reaching out to cuddle several men in the first few rows as she sings “I got my mojo working . . . I’ll have all you men under my command.”

The set, by Lisa Pegnato, evokes a smoky bar with the look of darkened brick and filmed-over posters. But despite the beer sign and bottles on the tables, this is one blues club where the audience can’t get a drink — only water is permitted inside the theatre.

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