John Lee Hooker's sold-out show at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday was something of a revelation. Watching a 70-year-old man out-sing, out-play, out-dance, and just basically outclass every act currently on MTV kind of gives one a new perspective on rock 'n' roll.
The pioneering blues singer-guitarist's licks and rolling, bass-heavy boogie are the textbook rhythms of much of rock 'n' roll music as we know it today. Without Hooker, there might very well have been no Rolling Stones, no Yardbirds, no Grateful Dead, no Eric Burdon & the Animals . . . not to mention no Z.Z. Top, no Robert Cray, and maybe even no Meat Puppets.
At Saturday night's show, Hooker displayed his legendary talents to their best effect, helped along by the backing of a crack band--Deacon Jones on keyboards, Kim Richards on drums, Jim Guyett on bass, Kenny Baker on sax and Mike Osborne on guitar. Dressed in a natty charcoal-gray suit, topped by a neat white fedora, and hunched over a bright red guitar, Hooker presided over two sets of gritty blues more suited to the seedier parts of New Orleans or Chicago than to San Juan Capistrano on a mild Southern California evening.
"Feel so bad," Hooker intoned, his deep, clear voice booming through the smoky nightclub like a musical cannonball, "just like sittin' in the bullpen at a ballgame on a rainy day. Feel so bad . . . just like a sick man outside a hospital with no hope of gettin' in. Feel so bad . . . just like a my woman done left me cold. Feel just so bad, so bad, so blue."
Hooker played standard blues numbers, extemporizing the lyrics, trading lead and rhythms roles with Osborne, and fanning his band into a frenzy of tight, hard, loping blues. When Hooker turned around and gestured to Jones, his high-tech synthesizer suddenly swirled into action, swooping up and down like an old Hammond B3 organ. When he nodded to Baker (which he did often), the saxophone chugged into the lead, pouring hot melodic leads on top of the double-churning rhythm guitar. And when he glanced at Osborne, glissades of blues notes toppled from the guitarist's fingers.
Hooker relied on Osborne for most of the quick leads, but his own trademark fills were equally compelling. He has a trick of de-tuning the strings of his guitar to get effects (rather then fretting for them) that is just too cool for words--and which modern guitar heroes, notably Johnny Marr, formerly of the Smiths, have picked up from him.
Hooker has had a number of R&B hits over the years, including "I'm in the Mood" and "Boogie Chillun." At the Coach House show, however, he confined the hits to "Big Boss Man," long a staple of the R&B repertoire, and "Boom Boom," (a hit in 1962 for Hooker, in 1965 for the Animals, and later revived by the Blues Brothers for the '80s generation). In fact, Hooker played that signature song no less than four times: during the set, repeating it to close out each set with it and using it yet again as encore.
Because the blues relies more on feeling and improvisation than on actual songs, this seemingly excessive amount of "Boom Boom" presented no great hardship for those in the audience, who couldn't seem to get enough of it. By the end of the evening, all were their feet, gleefully sweating out the blues in their own souls, and cheering the man on stage as he shook his own hips to the action.