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Fox Lorber presents
Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson (1999)

"I think he was the new kid on the block. He was blazing a new trail."
- Roy Rogers (Musician)

Review By: Jesse Shanks   
Published: July 16, 2000

Stars: Robert Lockwood Jr., Alvin Youngblood Hart, Chris Whitley, Peter Green, Nigel Watson, Rory Block, Rob Wasserman, Keb' Mo', Robert Lockwood Jr., Joe Louis Walker, Billy Branch, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Roy Rogers, Guy Davis, Willie Coffee
Other Stars: Bob Weir, Govt Mule, Henry Townsend, G. Love
Director: Robert Mugge

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:32m:00s
Release Date: February 29, 2000
UPC: 720917305226
Genre: r-b

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

When I first started listening to rock and roll music, I noticed a curious group of songwriters that seemed to crop up on some of the albums by my favorite groups. These were usually one-offs on the records and had a curious musical style with racketing guitars, thumping, and bent slide notes. The lyrics were often akin to moans of pain, with an unusual lyrical structure of ascending and descending lines with repetition. This lead me to explore more fully a genre of American music called the Blues by seeking out the original records by these artists with names like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightning Hopkins and Robert Johnson.

Like Jazz music, the Blues is one of the exemplars of the importance of the black experience in American cultural history. Robert Johnson has always been a legendary figure among Blues aficionados. A mythology has risen around his short life and his songs have echoed across American music for more than 60 years.

Hellhound On My Trail documents the celebration of Robert Johnson in the American Music Master™ series by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. Many well know names in pop music performed the music of Robert Johnson and music historians discussed the impact of this enigmatic singer/songwriter who first recorded in 1936 and who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Why is Robert Johnson in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? The rock power trio Cream recorded Johnson's Crossroads Blues and Rollin' and Tumblin'. The Rolling Stones recorded Love In Vain Blues. Eric Clapton has covered Ramblin' On My Mind, Kind Hearted Woman Blues, Walkin' Blues, among other Johnson songs. Led Zeppelin romped through a version of Travellin' Riverside Blues. "Robert Johnson is the greatest folk-blues guitar that ever lived, He's the greatest singer, the greatest writer," Eric Clapton is quoted in the liner notes of the CD Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues. The passionate lyrics and astonishing guitar work of Robert Johnson and other Delta Bluesmen of that period form one of the foundations of what become rock and roll and modern popular music as we know it.

This documentary demonstrates the elastic nature of Johnson music from the passionate acoustic slide guitar performances of Rory Block to the electric power rock of Govt Mule. Young performers like Chris Whitley and G. Love share the screen with blues legends Robert Lockwood Jr. and David "Honeyboy" Edwards. Guy Davis does a traditional and affecting performance of Walkin' Blues early in on followed by an electric performance by Sonny Landreth and the Billy Hector Band and another version of the same song in a more Grateful Deadish, folk-rock rhythm by Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman and Govt Mule. Rory Block gives a rousing performance of Rollin' and Tumblin'. Lockwood and Edwards return with piano player Henry Townsend for a lovely reading of Sweet Home Chicago that had me asking for more inclusion of their playing and singing.

Interspersed into the music are interviews with Robert Lockwood Jr. (Johnson's stepson), Willie Coffee (a childhood friend of Johnson's) and other figures that have interest in the Robert Johnson legacy. Folk-blues guitarist Roy Rogers discusses and demonstrates the actual guitar techniques and stylings that Johnson pioneered and used. Then Rogers takes off on a stunning version of Ramblin' On My Mind.

There have always been apocryphal tales that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to become the greatest guitar player that ever lived. This legend is explored in the documentary with amusing commentary on the tale. The details of how Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 is another tale that is discussed. More prosaic aspects of his "afterlife" are covered, such as the way that musicians were found to have co-opted material written by Robert Johnson that was in the public domain and passed it off as their own. The history of securing the financial aspects of the Robert Johnson legacy is typically not a pretty story. One sequence analyzes at length some recently discovered film footage that seems to show Robert Johnson and, although the footage is very interesting as a historical document, it is ultimately shown that it could not be him.

Typically in musical documentaries of this type the first viewing with the interspersed interviews is fine. But with repeated viewing, they get in the way of the music and the places where the songs are cut into partial performances as illustrations of the spoken segments is irritating. I would much rather have the uncut performances rather than pieces. In some cases, where the film truncates a performance, it is included in the bonus audio tracks. However, Robert Lockwood Jr. gets a short shrift as his performance of a medley of Johnson songs is chopped by the interview and the entire performance is not include on the disc and should have been.

Overall, this is a well-made film and is very entertaining and informative. For the viewer that is very familiar with Robert Johnson, it is a pleasure to see these classic songs rendered so freshly and lovingly by such a wide range of intriguing artists. For the viewer who knows little about Robert Johnson and his music, this documentary will come as a revelation.

Performance List:

Bill Morrissey — Robert Johnson (BM)
Alvin Youngblood Hart — Hellhound on my Trail
Guy Davis — Walkin' Blues
Rory Block — Rollin' and Tumblin'
Robert Lockwood Jr. (stepson) — Partial performances of Kindhearted Woman, Steady Rollin' Man and others
Keb' Mo — Love in Vain Blues
Sonny Landreth with the Billy Hector Band — Walkin' Blues
Peter Green & Nigel Watson — Terraplane Blues
Joe Louis Walker & Billy Branch — I Believe I'll Dust My Broom
Chris Whitley — Hellhound On My Trail
Govt Mule — Rollin' and Tumblin'
David "Honeyboyy" Edwards — Crossroad Blues
Tracy Nelson, Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas & Roy Rogers — Come On In My Kitchen
Roy Rogers — Ramblin' On My Mind
Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman & Govt Mule — Walkin' Blues
Robert Lockwood Jr., David "Honeyboy" Edwards & Henry Townsend — Sweet Home Chicago
G. Love & Special Sauce — Love in Vain

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image transfer is clear and consistent, if not spectacular. There are quite a few different video sources in the compilation and the transfer maintains a regular picture quality. The concert footage is crisp and the switches between interview and music are not jarring. This is an example of decent video quality which is unfortunately inconsistent with Fox Lorber DVDs.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Mono. [Harumph.] It is, however, a very good mono. I cranked it up and found it very listenable and bright. The crackle of the slide guitars was crisp and the bottom end (showing off Rob Wasserman's primo bass playing) was full and dynamic. Switching between the various types of segments, whether musical, interview, or the seminar sequences with speeches and discussions, there was no loss of fidelity.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 9 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 21 cues and remote access
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio Tracks

    Guy Davis — I Believe I'll Dust My Broom
    Rory Block — Terraplane Blues
    Peter Green & Nigel Watson — Traveling Riverside Blues
    Peter Green & Nigel Watson — I'm A Steady Rolling Man
    Peter Green & Nigel Watson — Terraplane Blues
    Peter Green & Nigel Watson — Honeymoon Blues
    Keb' Mo' — Love In Vain Blues
    Rob Wasserman — Cross Road Blues
    Govt Mule — 32-20 Blues
    Joe Louis Walker & Billy Branch - I Believe I'll Dust My Broom
    Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman & Govt Mule — Walkin' Blues
    Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman, Chris Whitley & Jeffrey Clemmens Walkin' Blues (Hotel Jam)
  2. Robert Johnson Discography
  3. Weblinks — http://www.winstar.com and http://www.deltahaze.com
Extras Review: A reasonable attempt at extras with the inclusion of bonus audio tracks. The performances are arresting and the bonus audio seems to be in stereo, unlike the film. Standouts include the Rob Wasserman bass solo performance of Crossroads, the Rory Block Terraplane Blues and Keb' Mo's Love In Vain Blues. It is nice that some of the truncated songs in the film are presented in full here but some performances, especially the legendary bluesmen should be here. With this being a "historical" documentation of the Music Masters series, it would seem that some of that material could have been included to add value to this as a collector's piece. Maybe I ask too much.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

One can almost feel that the "real" blues is dying out as the great blues masters are slowly but surely passing into legend. There is the thought that we will be left with an ersatz version of this most authentic type of music. Some performers who use the "blues" style don't really have that truth-telling feeling that the real blues requires. But, to see such fine young performers as Chris Whitley, Rory Block and Alvin Youngblood Hart bringing alive such a quintessentially American genre of music with passion and authenticity and to see performers like Govt Mule, Bob Weir and Sonny Landreth give powerful and excitingly expansive renditions in the genre is heartening for any fan of the blues and is the true statement of this documentary.


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