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So many hues of the blues

B.B. King's festival gives a rousing hearing to some of a simple form's vast array of styles.

September 17, 2004|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The blues were on full display Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl. A rainbow of blues, that is, displaying the panorama of musical hues and rhythms present in this remarkable American cultural creation.

The B.B. King Blues Festival was the source of all this activity, with the venerable King himself in the headliner position for the five-hour show. And the single most remarkable aspect of the evening was the extent to which an uncomplicated musical form -- a 12-bar framework with three basic chords -- can serve as the fundamental source for such a diverse array of music.

Starting with Elvin Bishop's electrifying blues guitar playing, the concert proceeded from Edgar Winter's blues rock, Shemekia Copeland's soulful vocals and Dr. John's atmospheric New Orleans blues to the inimitable tones of King's famous guitar, Lucille.

Virtually everything that was played was either pure blues, blues-based or blues-driven. There were eight-bar blues tunes, blues with a bridge, blues vamps and blues with altered harmonies. There were instrumental blues, vocal blues, rhythm & blues and scat blues.

One of the great appeals of the blues is the harmonic and structural simplicity that makes it instantly recognizable, regardless of stylistic and structural alterations. Bishop's set, for example, recalled the Chicago roots that are the prime source of his music. Winter's program included his jazz-based alto saxophone playing and his unique scat singing as well as the tooth-rattling bass notes of his keyboards and the rock 'n' roll urgency of his rhythms.

Copeland brought a full arsenal of gospel-tinged ornamentation to her vocals, reminiscent of the soaring melismas of Aretha Franklin as well as the down-home passion of Janis Joplin. And Dr. John, surveying the entire panoply of Big Easy sounds with his gnarled voice and lively piano playing, added his own rich-textured blues inventions, bringing New Orleans' second-line spirit to the handkerchief-waving crowd.

After all that, King's set seemed overly packaged. His less-than-intriguing band opened with a pair of numbers before the leader ambled on stage. And when he finally arrived, King -- who pointed out that he would turn 79 at midnight -- ranged through familiar material with the predictability of another day at the office. But give him credit for maintaining his annual Blues Festival tour, which continues to bring the music's myriad practitioners to past fans and new enthusiasts.

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