"The Barrelhouse used to be right down there on the northeast corner of Wilmington," Johnny Otis said Saturday afternoon, referring to the nightclub--a block east of the Watts Towers--that he ran in the late '40s.
The veteran bandleader was back on his old stomping grounds to stage the "R&B Reunion," which closed the first half of the two-day, 10th annual Watts Towers Music and Arts Festival.
Otis' big-band R&B doesn't aspire to anything beyond crowd-pleasing entertainment, but that suited the casual ambiance of the festival as perfectly as the strong, steady breeze that cooled off the sun blazing down from a cloudless sky.
Surprisingly, Otis opened up with cover versions of '60s soul hits rather than the swinging jump-blues sound from the late '40s that is more commonly associated with him. But he got through to the crowd on a funny, jiving duet with backing vocalist Barbara Morrison and earned a hearty roar by injecting the line "Going back to Watts/And drink a little wine" near the end of "Sweet Home Chicago."
Morrison again ignited the audience with another rousing performance on "Every Day I Have the Blues." Right after she sang the line, "Saturday, I go out to play," a woman snaking her way through the crowd turned abruptly on her heel and shouted back at the stage, "I play Monday through Sunday, honey" and followed that with a series of coyote yips.
A recent round of touring has whipped Otis' 12-piece band into a tight, precise ensemble, but the set tapered off when the group switched to backing guest stars. Big Jay McNeely began his set down with the audience, honking through his electronically amplified tenor sax, and concluded it the same way by walking the length of the tent sheltering the crowd.
Richard Berry, resplendent in a "Louie, Louie" T-shirt and a Jim McMahon-style "Louie, Louie" headband, performed a strong version of . . . you guessed it, "Louie, Louie," the song he wrote in the mid-'50s that became a '60s garage-rock anthem.
The Marvelettes were sabotaged by sound problems that left the backing vocalists inaudible throughout the opening "Beachwood 4-5789." The former Motown trio's set reeked of practiced show biz moves that made it a virtual parody.
Otis and company get lumped in with the revivalist-nostalgia set, but they genuinely love to play these early forms of black music. The Marvelettes just sounded like they've tailored their act to please bored conventioneers at resort hotels who remember "Please Mr. Postman" topping the charts 25 years ago.
Earlier, Horace Tapscott and the Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra had capped their tribute to Eric Dolphy with a thrilling finale that found all 13 members locked in a sustained, three-minute burst of collective improvisation that had many audience members standing and shouting, "Go! Go! Go!" Etta James also turned in a strong set featuring some bawdy blues and her signature ballad, "I'd Rather Go Blind."
But it was also a day to soak up the comfortable street-scene ambiance of the Festival, whether by sampling different chicken recipes and fruit juice stands or admiring the individual handicrafts on display. That's not to mention the inspiring presence of the Watts Towers--just wandering inside that mind-boggling creation with the sounds of an acoustic jazz quintet propelled by the agile drumming of Billy Higgins wafting through the air from a nearby stage was pretty delightful in itself.