The other night we went to the Apollo to see a tribute to blues legend Robert Johnson on or about what would have been his 100th birthday. That is it would have been his 100th birthday if he hadn’t died in 1938 “at a little country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi.”
My general view on the blues is that it plays much better live than on record/tape/cd/mp3. I find recorded blues tends not to be my kind of thing and doesn’t really convey the power of the performances. This night did nothing to dispel that prejudice of mine, because the performances were almost universally fantastic.
Just off the top of my head, Taj Mahal pretty much stole the whole show. The man is absolutely fantastic, and was a total force onstage. But how could anyone have been better than Bettye LaVette, who brought down the house:
One of the night’s highlights, however was the lovely Bettye LaVette, who returned to the stage to sing “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” accompanied by Kevin Kiley on harmonica. Before she twisted around, encouraging cheers from the audience, the venerable soul singer announced, “I haven’t stood on this stage since 1965 — and it seemed much bigger.”
When LaVette and Taj got together, well, the fireworks really were on. The “house band” for the night, remarkably, included Keb Mo — who in a number of solos was probably the best performer (I know this is inconsistent with what I said before; sue me) of the night — as well as James Blood Ulmer, who not only had the best hat of the evening (and there was some competition), but had a serious growl going, and Otis Taylor, who reminds me of Randall Tex Cobb in Raising Arizona. That’s not even to mention a brief but quality (if a little cursory) showing by the Roots, a number of rousing — if not terribly bluesy — numbers by Living Colour, solid performances by Shemekia Copeland and Sarah Dash, a couple of pretty weird turns by Todd Rundgren (who said something incoherent about being part of an inside-out Oreo that is probably best forgotten), and an unnecessary appearance by Chuck D.
And even with all that, I would have ignored the fantastic scenery-chewing appearance by Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame), and a solidly understated performance by Elvis Costello (accompanied only by Steve Jordan on percussion — video is here).
Here’s a little amateur video to give you a small taste of the proceedings (beginning with Taj Mahal and then segueing into the grand finale):
Oh, and lest I forget, Macy Gray did one serviceable number in the first half of the show, and then when she returned again toward the end of the show she was so fucking wasted that I seriously thought she was going to fall over. She didn’t, and while I have no idea what she was on (and she didn’t share), we all breathed a sigh of relief when she made it off the stage in an upright position. The downside of the show was probably the Dough Rollers, who were this duo of white guys who played decent guitar, but the singer had one of the most affected growly bluesy voices I’ve ever heard, and it almost seemed like a parody (others, apparently, disagree and think the Dough Rollers were fantastic). The Times agreed that these two were “clearly out of their league.”
All-in-all an unbelievable show. I’m glad to have been there.