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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : A Not-So-Direct Salute to Music of the Delta

September 20, 1993|BILL KOHLHAASE

Billed as a celebration of "Blues From the Delta," Saturday's opening day of the 14th annual Long Beach Blues Festival at the Cal State Long Beach athletic field moved quickly out of Mississippi and, like the blues itself, headed north to places like Memphis, Chicago and Detroit. Though not truly a festival of Delta music, most of the music on the varied program managed to trace its Southern roots, if often by circuitous routes.

When the program did return to the Delta, as it did midway through the afternoon when four singer-guitarists paid tribute to Robert Johnson, it only underscored the dynamic influence that this folk music of Mississippi has had on both rock and jazz. There was no small irony in the fact that while Lexington, Miss., native Lonnie Pitchford sang Johnson's "Love in Vain," one-time Rolling Stone Mick Taylor was at one of the festival booths signing copies of his new blues recording.

Of the four Johnson devotees, Kevin Moore came closest to the late legend's spirit with a voice equal to these tales of trouble and love. John Hammond's edgy steel guitar work and enthusiastic singing were also standouts.

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. Harmonica player James Cotton and the Preston Shannon band both made strong presentations of urban blues.

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 steel guitar number as he does on his latest recording, "Boom Boom." Instead, he boogied along predictably on electric. Maybe Hooker's just been away from the Delta too long.

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