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Blues Routes

All road signs point to Highway 61, a multimedia tour in which four seminal artists trace the genre from its gospel roots to soulful R&B and beyond.

October 14, 1998|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Highway 61 Revisited is no longer limited to the landmark Bob Dylan album of 1965.

Four masters of the blues--Memphis-style soul man Booker T. Jones, Delta blues stylist John Hammond, gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama and Chicago singer-harpist Billy Boy Arnold--blaze their own path to the Irvine Barclay Theatre tonight and Thursday as part of the ambitious House of Blues Highway 61 tour.

Named after the famed slice of blacktop running from Memphis to New Orleans, this "Highway 61" is a multimedia production that takes the audience on a musical odyssey of the blues.

"Is it a comprehensive history report? No," said Kevin Morrow, organizer of the 40-city tour that began last weekend in Berkeley, Calif. "The emphasis is on the artists creating music in the moment. That's where you'll get your real history lesson."

Morrow, vice president of entertainment for the House of Blues Inc., is nothing short of ecstatic about his performers.

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"I mean, we've got a gospel group that's been touring for 60 years. . . . The Blind Boys founded gospel quartet. John Hammond is the next best thing to Robert Johnson; Booker T. and the MG's redefined Memphis R & B, and Billy Boy Arnold had hits ['I Wish You Would' and 'Come Back, Baby'] that even [David] Bowie covered."

Morrow concedes that some important aspects of the blues may be left out, even though they are using film footage, narration and slides to help tell the story. Still, he believes the tour's success rides on the power of the music itself.

"The moving force is the musicians--their skills, charisma and energy," Morrow said.

Highway 61 traces the historical and geographic evolution of the blues, from its gospel roots in the chants of African slaves to the rural, acoustic-based sounds of the Mississippi Delta; then blossoming into the soulful R&B of the Memphis era and the modern, urbanized, electrified Chicago-style blues. What's essential, Morrow said, is understanding the common thread running through each variation of the blues.

"We present differing combinations of the idiom's various forms to illustrate how all the music is really derivative of the same thing. . . . When the Blind Boys of Alabama play with John Hammond, you see how natural the fusing of gospel with the country blues is. . . . Later, when you feel the raw power of Billy Boy Arnold, what you're also hearing are the roots of rock 'n' roll."

Arnold, a skilled harmonica player and spirited singer, is among the first generation of bluesmen actually born and raised in the Windy City. Now 63, he recalls how many blacks migrated to Chicago in search of a better life.

"In the '20s and '30s, it was a melting pot. . . . Everyone was from someplace else," Arnold said in an interview. "So many people left the fields and factories of Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia--just all over the South--for the 'promised land.' . . . That's what they called Chicago. Most made a better living working here in the steel mills, stockyards and such.

"On weekends, you could go to the nightclubs and hear Sonny Boy, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and others. Let me tell ya, Chicago was a thriving blues mecca."

At the age of 11, a visit to see one of his neighbors--the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson)--inspired Arnold to chase his dream.

"I just fell in love with his playing style," he said. "I heard he lived on the South Side and through someone my uncle knew, I was able to find out Sonny Boy's address. So one Saturday afternoon, I got my cousin and a friend of mine to go down there with me to his house.

"We rang the doorbell, and this man slowly opened the door. I told him, 'We want to hear Sonny Boy play.' And he answered, 'Well, I'm Sonny Boy. Come on in. . . . I'm proud to have you all.' "

Arnold wanted to know how the master made his harmonica sound so distinctive: "Ya know, that 'wah-wah-wah."

"So he showed me how to 'choke it'--that's what they called it back then. Today, I guess it's just bending the notes," Arnold recalled. "He was a nice, giving man. I visited Sonny Boy twice more before he was mugged and murdered. . . . Did you know he was only 34 when he died in '48?"

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Arnold went on to play the Chicago club circuit and record singles throughout much of the 1950s. Although it wasn't until 1963 that he released his debut album, "More Blues From the South Side," his influence reached a number of blues-based rockers. Bowie, the Yardbirds, the Animals, Canned Heat and the Blasters all recorded Arnold's songs.

"The blues has come a long way," mused Arnold, whose latest album, 1995's "Eldorado Cadillac," is a solid, sweaty blues collection. "Heck, today B.B. King and John Lee Hooker can command $50,000 for a single show. It's American-made music, but it's reaching a global audience now."

Arnold regards the blues as "the most emotional music on the planet."

"I know that when I'm performing, I'm trying to reach out to the audience. If they weren't one already, I hope they walk away a fan of the blues."

Morrow hopes the audience also takes something away with them.

"I hope they walk out . . . and go, 'Wow, that was a musical experience I've never had.' "

* House of Blues Highway 61 will be presented tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. 8 p.m. $30-$35. (949) 854-4646.

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