Friday, February 18, 2011

Blues At The Crossroads - The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts

Remember me telling you last week that I rarely attend live events anymore for various reasons?  Well, I stand corrected.  I actually went to hear some LIVE blues this past weekend.  This past Sunday night (February 13), the Blues At The Crossroads tour came to nearby Meridian, MS for the evening.  It was a star-studded event, as far as blues events go, paying tribute to that most influential of blues men, Mississippi's own Robert Johnson, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth (oddly, this is the only Mississippi date for the tour). 

The concert was headlined by a rock group, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, but the guest star list was phenomenal.....a list of Mississippi blues stars past and present.  Representing the present, and future, of Mississippi blues were drummer/guitarist Cedric Burnside and singer/guitarist Steve "Lightnin'" Malcolm.  Representing the storied past and present of Mississippi blues were long time Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin and the living legend himself, David "Honeyboy" Edwards.

Honeyboy Edwards
Believe it or not, I was not planning on attending.  There were several reasons for this.....the biggest one being that I'm an idiot.  How could I miss seeing Honeyboy Edwards when he's only about thirty miles away??!!  I mean, the man is LIVING HISTORY, for goodness sake!!!!  He was there in the 30's when Robert Johnson played, was there the night Johnson was poisoned, and he's seen or played with just about anybody who was anybody in the blues from the mid 30's onward.  Be that as it may, I was not planning to attend....until a friend happened upon a pair of tickets and invited me.  He ended up not being able to go because he was sick, so my brother and I attended.

The concert was being held at Meridian's MSU Riley Center.  The Riley Center was an opera house, beginning in the late 1800's.  It hosted vaudeville acts, minstrel shows, and silent movies, before becoming obsolete and shutting down in 1927.  It remained shuttered for over seventy years, forgotten by most people (the bottom part of the building was actually one of the town's swankiest clothing stores for years), until a drive started in the late 1980's to restore it.  Millions were spent to refurbish the opera house itself and to convert the rest into a state-of-the-art conference center.  If this sounds like a commercial to you, get over it, because if you ever get an opportunity to see someone perform there, you will quickly agree that this is one of the best places to hear music that you will ever visit.  Trust me.  Not only that, but performers absolutely love to play here.  The acoustics are fantastic.  The only problem is the fact that there were fewer Super-Size Combos back in the days when this theatre was built, so that means the seats are narrower and therefore closer together, so if you don't know your neighbor at the start of the concert, you're pretty familiar with them by the time it's over.  This is a minor annoyance, however, that you forget as soon as the music starts.

Todd Park Mohr
Big Head Todd opened the show.  The group's front man, singer/guitarist Todd Park Mohr, first heard Robert Johnson in the 80's as a college student at the University of Colorado.  Mohr wasn't exactly fired up about Johsnon at the beginning, but slowly grew to appreciate the genius of his much that Big Head Todd's next recording project, out in March is a tribute to Robert Johnson, from which this concert series came into being. 

Mohr opened the show with an acapella reading of the old song, "John the Revelator," then strapped on a guitar for a couple of other Johnson tracks before being joined by BHT keyboardist Jeremy Lawton, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Cedric Burnside on drums for several tracks, then the rest of BHT (drummer Brian Nevin and bassist Rob Squires) joined in.  For the most part, the rockers played it straight on the blues tunes, and they sounded great, especially the twin drum attack of Burnside and Nevin.  Their version of "Love In Vain" was particularly good.  Mohr did a fine job singing and playing guitar.  He didn't try to overdo it, either vocally or instrumentally, as sometimes happens at these sort of events.  

Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm
After several more Johnson songs, the group left the stage and turned things over to Lightnin' Malcolm, who performed a pair of solo acoustic tracks from two of Johnson's major influences.  First, he performed a stellar version of Son House's "Walkin' Blues," and then Willie Brown's "Future Blues."  For the middle portion of the show, Malcolm served as a gracious, and entertaining, master of ceremonies.  Though he was born in Missouri, Malcolm has played with many of the great Mississippi blues legends over the years (even making an appearance on M for Mississippi) and is definitely a star of the future.

Honeyboy Edwards
Finally, the moment everyone had been waiting for......Malcolm introduced Honeyboy Edwards, who slowly made his way to center stage, using a quad cane and support from one of the roadies and his manager, Michael Frank (who backed Edwards on harmonica).  Even though he's 95 years old, I was sort of surprised at how frail he appeared coming to the stage.  He gingerly took his seat next to Lightnin' Malcolm, and proceeded to start trying to tune his guitar, with a little help from Malcolm.  When he started playing the guitar, the frailness disappeared and he seemed to burst with energy.  His fingers flew all over the guitar.  Vocally, he struggles at times, but is still effective.  It was just an incredible experience watching him do those old songs, like "Take A Little Walk With Me" and "That's All Right."  Every once in a while, he'd take off on a little guitar run and look over at Malcolm like, "Not too bad, eh?"

Hubert Sumlim & Honeyboy Edwards
After three or four songs, Hubert Sumlin joined the trio on stage, along with Burnside.  Sumlin has battled myriad health issues over the past few years and was accompanied onstage by his oxygen tank.  Not that anyone noticed once he started playing those amazing idiosyncratic out-of-this-world notes on his guitar.  I have to admit that Sumlin's contributions to Howlin' Wolf's legacy were their main selling point to me as a neophyte, but as a solo act, he's never really grabbed me as much.  I saw him years ago at the New Orleans Jazz Festival when he played with Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang and he was really on fire that day.  The other night, he was really feeling it, too, joining Edwards for a couple of songs and, after Edwards left the stage, even taking his place behind the mic for a rousing version of "Sittin' On Top Of The World."

Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, & Lightnin' Malcolm
One thing that really amazed me about both of these men was how they seemed to come to life once they had their guitar in hand.  Though both of them had to have assistance to get on the stage, once there, the years seemed to fall away.  I thought, if they are this good now, how good must they have been back in the day.  I beg you, please go see these living legends, and any others that are still plugging away out there like B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, etc..., while you still have the chance to do so.

Big Head Todd had returned to the stage for the last couple of Hubert Sumlin's songs (including an excellent reading of "Smokestack Lighthin'") and closed things out with some modernized versions of more Johnson songs.  Their modern interpretations worked just fine and were well-received, but after the appearance of the two legends, it all seemed a bit anti-climatic.  When the set ended and the band came out for an encore, they pulled out all the stops for two of Johnson's classics....."Dust My Broom" and "Crossroads."  Then they brought Edwards and Sumlin out for the final two songs as the crowd roared their approval.  All in all, it was a very enjoyable show.  Unfortunately, pictures and video were forbidden during the show since it was being taped, but there's footage out there to be seen.  Check out this montage of performances captured by some nice chap at YouTube.  While it's not as good as being there (I thought Honeyboy was better on Sunday night), it should be enough to encourage you to check it out if they're in your area.

In addition to Sumlin and Edwards, other living legends like B.B. King, James Cotton, and Charlie Musselwhite have appeared on various shows at various locations.  Big Head Todd's new release will be in stores in March, with guest appearances by many of these same artists, so be on the lookout.

(Added 2/24/11) - the group posted a video from the MSU Riley Center earlier this week.  Check it out.

Other essential related listening.......

Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards - Delta Bluesman (Earwig):  Most of Honeyboy's recordings are worth having, but this one is special because it features some of his best modern recordings from the late 70's to the early 90's, plus a generous helping of his 1942 Library of Congress recordings.  There are also snippets of an interview with Edwards, where he discusses some of the songs as well as some stories about his life.  This is a great place to start with your Honeyboy Edwards collection, and every blues fan should have at least one of his records.

About Them ShoesHubert Sumlin - About Them Shoes (Tone Cool):  As I stated above, I'm not as excited about Sumlin as a solo act as I was when he played with Howlin' Wolf.....his vocals are not that strong, his playing can be a bit erratic, and sometimes he hasn't had the most inspiring musicians in support....but this release pretty much gets things right.  He has some excellent support in Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, James Cotton, Paul Oscher, Blondie Chaplin, and Bob Margolin.  All of Sumlin's recordings are worth a listen, but this one is probably the most consistent.

2 Man Wrecking CrewCedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm - 2 Man Wrecking Crew (Delta Groove):  If you see these guys during this tour, you will want to get your hands on this disc.  Mississippi Hill Country Blues at it's finest, these guys have been around it forever and play off each other so well, you'd swear they would have to be brothers.  You can bet ol' R.L. is up in Heaven sittin' down and loving every minute of their act.

Complete RecordingsRobert Johnson - Complete Recordings (Sony Legacy): you don't have these already.  If you don't have them in one format or another, just don't tell anybody and either order them on Amazon or Ebay or somewhere.  That's the only way you can really find out what all the fuss is about with the most influential blues artist of all time.

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