Anderson’s compelling doc of blues great at CIMMfest

Drummer Sam Lay of Bluesland

Premiering at CIMMfest Saturday, April 18 will be Grammy-nominated director John Anderson’s wondrous Sam Lay in Bluesland, a documentary about the celebrated blues drummer, whose story unfolds in chapters of our city’s social, racial and musical history.

The same day as the CIMMfest screening, Lay, as part of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the place where he bought his first drum kit, in the mid-1950s.

Anderson shot his 89-minute doc on a very accelerated schedule between November 2013 and November 2014.  “Given our speeded-up timetable, we tried to set up all the interviews during the first six months,” Anderson explains.

“It wasn’t an easy task when you’re dealing with busy people like Iggy Pop, James Cotton, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Corky Siegel, Jim Keltner and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Somehow Starr (Sutherland, producer) pulled it off.”

Mixing rich interviews, archival clips, and present day concert performances, Anderson creates a compelling portrait of the now 80-year old blues legend.

Playing in Chicago with the greats

Sam Lay’s journey took him from Birmingham, Alabama, to Cleveland, then Chicago. With bassist Jerome Arnold and a skinny University of Chicago physics major guitarist from Tulsa named Elvin Bishop, Lay next drove the propulsive rhythm section of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Starting with a weekly gig in 1963 at Big John’s in Old Town, the group became a first citywide, then nationwide sensation. After blues guitar prodigy Mike Bloomfield plugged in, their course-setting first record in 1965 would take modern Chicago-style urban blues to a mainstream (white) audience. No other act played the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.

 Sam Lay acolyte, one-time drummer and cultural early warning divining rod Iggy Pop testifies, “That first Butterfield album was so good — I could not get to Side Two for many months. I’d play Side One, then, like, I’d put on the Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud,” and it sounded so bloodless.”

 At the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, when Bob Dylan strapped on an electric guitar and wailed “Maggie’s Farm,” Sam Lay was playing drums. For Dylan, Lay also recorded Highway 61 Revisited 

 John Anderson (right) with Brian Wilson The film’s richest treasures are flickering images from Lay’s own wind-up Brownie Hawkeye camera. Smiling, partying faces whirl past the lens in these startling history Instagrams from inside various rocking, crowded South Side nightclubs.  Rubbing elbows on postage-stamp bandstands are Muddy Waters, Albert King, Otis Rush, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Hound Dog Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf.

Lay is still performing in at least four bands, and, in the film, songs from two shows with his band are captured with the same finesse as Anderson’s earlier live performance concert films Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE and The Beach Boys: Doin’ It Again.

CIMMfest hosts Saturday Q&A with Anderson and Lay

Anderson directed and edited; executive producer was Michael Prussian for Chicago’s V. T. Productions; producer was Starr Sutherland, a former Chicago filmmaker now living in San Francisco and record producer Barry Goldberg co-produced. DP was Aaron Hui of Glide Productions. 

The music mix is by Frank Pappalardo with design by Casey Stockdon/Red Dynamo.

“For our interviews, we primarily used the Canon 5D MkIII,” Anderson says. “But this film could not have been made without the crucial contributions of Corky and Holly Siegel and Sam’s son Bobby Lay.”

CIMMfest Presents “A Conversation with Sam Lay,” hosted by Anderson, Saturday, April 11 at Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage, 8:30-10  p.m. Tickets are $20 for reserved seats, $15, first come-first serve and may be purchased here.

John Anderson will appear at two other CIMMfest events, April 17 and 18, free and open to all. Check them out here.