Robert Johnson Feted at All-Star Apollo Blues Hall of Fame Benefit
The Roots, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal, Chuck D and Macy Gray Among The Stellar Line Up
A low-key Tuesday night in New York City set the scene for a casually brilliant night of Blues-with-a-capital-B at the Apollo on March 6 as The Roots, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal, Chuck D, Macy Gray, Todd Rundgren and dozens of others interpreted the legendary Robert Johnson's small-but-potent body of tunes to benefit the building of the Hall of Fame in Memphis.
It was clear the show, billed as "Robert Johnson At 100," was off to an auspicious start when Allen Toussaint and a "house band" led by Keb' Mo' did a chilling version of "Crossroads Blues" as Costello and The Roots' Questlove looked on from the aisles of the historic Manhattan theater.
The huge, eclectic roster was no random jumble, however. As first Otis Taylor (on banjo, invoking the delta blues) and then Rundgren (rocking on a blonde Telecaster) blew threw wildly varying takes on Johnson's "Kindhearted Woman," it was a strong reminder of just what debt every modern music genre owes to the blues. Connecting the dots to hip-hop, Chuck D intoned "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" in his stentorian basso. Branching off to country, the Dough Rollers hollered out "Tell Me Pretty Mama." Giving love to latin percussion, Pedrito brought a salsa rhythm and a bit of Spanish translation to "Travelin' Riverside Blues."
And rather than insincere speechifying about Johnson's importance or each one's love of the blues, many of the performers gave a literal tip of the hat to him by wearing their own versions of his plain black-suit-and-fedora uniform. Even Bettye LaVette put on a blazer and fedora to let her voice loose on an inspired "When You Got A Good Friend."
But the evening's genius was in its pairings, showing off the music's versatility in yet another way. Living Colour surprisingly provoked the night's only true standing ovation when guitarist Vernon Reid's unrestrained, very rock solo on "Preachin' Blues" transitioned into a showcase for showstopping voices as singer Corey Glover got cozy with Shemeka Copeland on "Stop Breakin' Down."
Normally, this kind of multi-act benefit is overshadowed by an inescapable sense of hype over substance. But on this Tuesday night at the Apollo, the music shined through on it's own just fine.