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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Highway Detour : Music Cruises Full Speed Despite Clunky Media Show

October 16, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can deeply rooted blues tradition benefit from the new buzz of multimedia?

Leave that question for another day, because the Highway 61 Tour that came to the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Wednesday, purporting to tell the story of the blues by meshing video and narrative with live performances from a diverse array of front-rank talent, probably set back the onrushing rule of multimedia by a nanosecond or two.

The canned narrative was as perfunctory as a third-grade textbook, and the video element consisted mainly of grainy black-and-white stills projected on backdrops impersonating rusty corrugated metal fencing. The inadequate, undersized screens looked as if they had been pried from the faux-dilapidated exterior of the House of Blues, which organized the 35-city tour.

Still, multimedia that fizzled didn't detract much from music that often sizzled, so Highway 61 turned out to be a good, diverse mini-festival representing a good chunk of the African American musical legacy.

Doing the representing were John Hammond, tops in his field when it comes to vital interpretation of the acoustic rural blues from 60 and 70 years ago; the Blind Boys of Alabama, a classic gospel group that has two key singers from its original lineup of 60 years ago; Billy Boy Arnold, an overlooked but worthy representative of the Chicago electric-blues golden age of the '50s and early '60s; and Booker T. Jones, a leading architect of rhythm and blues and soul music, which fused the secular concerns of the blues with the vocal flights of gospel.

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Hammond, who went first in a solo set, was the only performer who suffered from the multimedia dud, simply because at the start one hadn't yet learned to ignore the useless screens. An out-of-focus sound mix didn't help as Hammond moved through standards by Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Blind Lemon Jefferson, somewhat muting the impact of his frenzied slide-guitar style and moaning vocals.

Hammond's final number, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," was a marvelous collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who backed him with sonorous harmonies as beautiful as they were darkly powerful.

Only leader Clarence Fountain, who still commands a baritone voice that can rumble like an earthquake, and Jimmy Carter, an indefatigable tenor, remain from the early days when youngsters from the glee club at a school for the deaf and blind began to perform gospel music together.

The heavy-set Fountain, who held his microphone with a shaky hand, had to conserve his physical and vocal energy. He took long pauses from singing and sat through most of the performance, but he made his moments count, showing with some choice yells where soul masters such as James Brown got their ideas.

Carter took over, pouring it on during a long walk through the aisles, assisted by a guide. He captivated with his spry jumps, huge voice and gleeful refusal to quit before he'd shattered the Irvine Barclay's arts-center calm and taken everybody to a participatory church of hollering and hand-clapping.

After an intermission, Arnold's set brought the blues into its urban, post-World War II blossoming. An early accompanist of Bo Diddley, Arnold rode some stomping, rumbling beats of his own, abetted by Booker T. Jones' three expert sidemen.

Arnold's songs were humorous takes on the pretzels that humans are bent into by sexual desire; his smooth voice wasn't trenchant or raw, like the classic Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf style, but it had a sureness and authority of its own. Arnold had the singing personality to carry off a variation on a Waters stomp without trying to affect a tough-guy's tone.

*

At intermission, it seemed that Booker T. Jones, leader of the legendary Memphis instrumental band Booker T. & the MG's, didn't have a prayer in Orange County, even when sitting in with a gospel group.

When Booker T. & the MG's backed Neil Young at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa in 1993, hardly a note of Jones' keyboard playing could be heard. It was the same as he tried to fire up his Hammond organ in support of the Five Blind Boys.

But when his own set came around, the gremlins were gone, and the Booker T. organ sound came through as sweet and pure as fresh-bloomed flowers.

Dapper in a white suit, Jones was aristocratically proper and dignified without putting on airs. His set skipped across his career as a bandleader and as an accompanist to many of the great Southern soul singers, including Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. Booker T. & the MG's proved that almost any pop style could be served up soul style, using clean, crisp musical architecture.

Jones' set provided many excellent examples, including a grinding rendition of his first hit, "Green Onions," and the high-plains drama of his theme for the 1968 Clint Eastwood film "Hang 'em High."

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