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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Blues Flow From the Delta All the Way to Long Beach


LONG BEACH — It was billed as a celebration of "Blues From the Delta" but Saturday's first installment of the two-day, 14th annual Long Beach Blues Festival, on the Cal State Long Beach athletic field, moved quickly out of Mississippi. Like the blues themselves, the show traveled north to places like Arkansas, Memphis, Chicago and Detroit. Most of what was on the varied program managed to trace its roots to the delta, but often by circuitous routes.

When the program did return to the delta, midway through the afternoon when four singer-guitarist paid tribute to Robert Johnson, it further underscored the dynamic influence that this folk music of the south has had on rock and jazz.

(There was no small irony in that while Lexington, Miss., native Lonnie Pitchford was singing Johnson's "Love in Vain," former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor was back at one of the festival booths signing copies of his new blues recording.)

Of the four Johnson devotees, Kevin Moore came closest to capturing the late legend's spirit, and those of his tales of troubles and love. Moore's guitar was an effective second voice, adding asides and affirmations to the lyrics with slide-generated cries and strummed-chord emphasis. The estimated crowd of more than 8,000 protested when Moore ended his set after only two numbers.

Pitchford, who followed, seemed to lose the audience with forced vocals and an air of nonchalance that made his musical stories ring false. Rory Block expanded on the delta guitar tradition with an almost lush sound. At one point, she apologized to the audience for learning "Walking Blues" without the slide, but no matter; she found other ways to give her playing that steely edge that can make Johnson's music cut so deeply.

Always rewarding, John Hammond's guitar work and enthusiastic singing, punctuated with cries and hollers, also were standouts. Though he was introduced as an "urban" interpreter of country blues, his work seemed at least as country-minded as the other guitarists in the Johnson tribute and certainly less cosmopolitan than Block's. The four performers combined for a brief rendition of "Sweet Home Chicago."

The "King Biscuit Time" radio program that began in Helena, Ark., 52 years ago was honored with a band led by guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood (said to be Robert Johnson's stepson) and pianist Pinetop Perkins, whose rough-house vocal delivery was given too little exposure.

Soul singer Rufus Thomas, dressed in red shorts, shirt and cape, opened his set with his 1963 dance hit "Walking the Dog" but spent most of his time exploring Memphis-style blues with his five-piece band. Though his voice has softened over the years, Thomas still brings a lot of energy to the stage. At one point, he coaxed a crowd of women from the audience to come up for "Do the Funky Chicken."

James Cotton and his band mined familiar tunes--"Stormy Monday, "Rock Me, Baby"--in their Chicago-inspired set. Cotton's harmonica playing has gotten sparer over the years but still is marked with the slides, bent tones and wailing chordal clusters that make his work exciting. His voice seemed to fade over the duration of his set but he was bolstered by fine keyboard work from Anthony Space, and guitarist Rico McFarland's smart embellishments.

Headliner John Lee Hooker, who was born on the delta, had a chance to make a direct link to the day's theme by playing a solo National steel guitar number as he does on his latest recording, "Boom Boom." Instead, he boogied along predictably on electric guitar with backup from the Coast to Coast Blues Band and occasional vocal help from Vala Cupp, whose voice has some of the rough-hewn quality of Janis Joplin's.

Before Hooker came out, Cupp and company drummed up the risque mood with Jimmy Cheatham's "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," a tune perfect for showcasing her naughty-girl sound.

The opening act, the blues festival talent search winning Preston Shannon Band out of Memphis, played a strong set that embraced a variety of blues styles. The festival was scheduled to conclude Sunday with Charlie Musselwhite, Denise LaSalle, Little Milton and a tribute to Muddy Waters.

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