Late Blossom Blues – The Journey of Leo “Bud” Welch
City Hall Records / Let’s make this happen / Red Monster Films
DVD | 90 minutes
Director Wolfgang Pfoser-Almer’s award winning documentary about Welch whose recording career began at 81, is a pastoral and moving movie about the last years of his life. The story line follows the steps Leo takes to finally become known in blues circles as one of the last of the Mississippi greats. It hooks the viewer in the first frames and keeps the interest going throughout. The only archival footage is during the final credits where his younger self is leading his gospel group. He’s lead singing in a clear voice while playing his trademark rhythm/lead guitar combination on “Praise his Name” (1985). This is worth the wait and it shows how extremely talented and worthy he is of this documentary.
The long journey details the few years of his blues career from 2014-2017. He is indeed infirm and yet he still drinks and smokes. He demonstrates how he picked cotton as a youth and that when the massive combines took that over, he moved on to logging. Either way he spent most of his life doing strenuous manual labor from dawn to dusk. “Late in the evening and the sun is going down (2x) I’ll feel so glad when I can go home.” The visual imagery showing the poor southern rural life is stunning. None of his unlikely rise to notoriety could have happened without his manager Venice Lawrence Varnado who first knew of him at twelve years old when Leo was to play his family’s juke joint. When no one came, Leo didn’t play but his presence left a lasting impression. When Venice got back from his stint in the Gulf War, he invited Leo to play his birthday party, secretly videoed him and sent it to Fat Possum Records. They liked it and recommended that Leo record for distributed label Big Legal Mess Records. The result was Sabougla Voices, a gospel-blues record. The label thought that because Leo was so well rehearsed on the gospel material it seemed the best approach for an unknown artist to get recognized. It worked. NPR called and put them on the air which the ball rolling in a big way. The movie shows the arc of Leo’s rise from nowhere Bruce, Mississippi, to being one of the most successfully marketed original blues artists of which only a handful still exist.
Venice is seen as a loving, patient caretaker and effective manager saying “I will not allow Leo to get exploited…He’ll play as long as he is enjoying it and not a day longer.” A second album I Don’t Prefer No Blues came out a year later. The title refers to what a preacher said about Leo’s other career. The single most incredible and unique attribute of Leo’s life as an artist is the fact that he could play gospel music (The Lord’s music) and blues (the Devil’s music) both with success simultaneously. He never saw that as a conflict as he was raised in the church and the church was the main place where he would play his music. As some say: one goes to church Sunday to absolve themselves of the sins from Saturday night. Leo never plays the blues on or near church property.
The movie shows a side of the music business rarely seen, where the only goal of the manager is solely to do the music and the artist justice. Money is never the issue. Leo still delivers boxes of food and supplies to local people for money and we accompany him on one of his runs. Everyone genuinely loves him and his wily ways. He’s got the spark and is a true entertainer day and night. The audiences at shows are seen enjoying themselves to the fullest. Smiling and dancing throughout at blues joints like Gip’s Place and Ground Zero (Clarksdale) and at various Blues Fests like Crescent City, New Orleans and other out of the way lawn chair fests. The movie culminates with a European tour. Venice is always there and involved: waking Leo up, getting him dressed and ready, discussing health issues/medication, hauling gear, driving to the gigs, setting up the equipment, talking to the sound people, getting Leo hooked up to his microphone headset, and he is always the first one out there dancing too.
Leo’s triple threat finger-strummed, single note riff-based, thumbed-bass/claw-chorded electric country blues is all his own. Leo “Bud” Welch playing his pink sparkle Daisy Rock Guitar’s Debutante Rock Candy special with the letters of his name on it is classic. He also plays a sweet black telecaster with a white pick guard and uses a Fender Deluxe amp. He is all high style on his first go round while nearly on his last legs. This slice of his life captured on film is nothing short of Herculean. Leo’s voice is raspy at times but when he’s on his game he can sing like a bird and is like no one else except maybe a J.B. Lenoir or a John Mayall. Smooth vocals that are clear most of the time give way to the few moments of almost not being able to clear his throat which gives the movie a certain tension of will he or won’t he? A: He’s always able as he can be and never falters. Leo embraces the performer’s life with a seriousness of purpose not often seen.
There is a stubborn cantankerousness that Venice and his eventual permanent drummer, Dixie Street, are able to regulate through their patient loving guidance throughout the rough touring life. Dixie is a joy to watch. She beams good vibes and somehow manages to regulate the untamable Leo without stepping on his toes. We see her often in the film and the film is all the better for it. Venice wanted to insert a drummer from the get go to make sure the audience got the best possible show given Leo’s octogenarian ways and being somewhat hard of hearing.
When we get to see Leo dance to his own master in the recording studio with a relieved and smiling producer Bruce Watson watching after it had been added, edited and mixed, we see a man who has made it to the mountain top all the way from the delta. This movie has such great music that repeated viewing is mandatory for any serious student of the blues. As a documentary it can stand alone as a singularly poignant account of great second acts and proof that it’s never too late to start over and live life to the fullest.