It is always a pleasure to spend a summer evening at the Hollywood Bowl, especially when that evening features three great blues singers with ties to Los Angeles. The Bowl’s annual jazz series kicked off on July 9th with a concert featuring Etta James, Keb’ Mo’ and Ernie Andrews, each with their own individual approach to the blues. While Los Angeles and Southern California may lack the blues cachet of, say, Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, you couldn’t tell that by the masterful performances turned out on this midsummer night.
First up was local favorite Ernie Andrews, a face and voice well known to the Bowl audience and, indeed, to jazz and blues fans throughout the Southland. With local roots dating back to the heyday of the Central Avenue jazz scene, Mr. Andrews is a well-loved figure here in the City of Angels and part-all too literally, as the recent passings of such esteemed associates as Teddy Edward and Benny Carter have shown-of a dying breed. Ernie’s velvet smooth vocals and refined jazz arrangements, typified by his patented, set closing arrangement of James Taylor’s "Fire and Rain," drew the crowd in and started the evening on an auspicious note.
Next up was the young (on this night, anyway) Compton native Keb’ Mo’. In contrast with Andrews’ horns and big band, Keb’ Mo’ took a more austere, country blues approach. Only, you know and I know and, God knows, Keb’ Mo’ knows that the CPT ain’t the country. His genius, really, is two-fold. First, he really seems to understand the acoustic blues of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, et al. Second, he’s the first to admit he doesn’t know anything about tenant farming and such-like. So what he does is to write what he does know-things like the angst of contemporary living and the yearning for a simpler (imaginary?) past, the universal joys and sorrows of love making and losing-in a way that relates to a contemporary audience while being completely respectful to the form he has inherited. Did I mention he was funny? Keb’ Mo’ interspersed witty stage-banter between clever lyrics such as "Keep It Simple" which, with its diatribe against voicemail systems, resonated with the crowd almost as strongly as his voice and guitar resonated in the Bowl’s damp with dew air.
As wonderful as the openers were, they weren’t the reason that more than 15,000 people waded through the infamous traffic on the 101 Freeway on a work night. It was Etta James that most people came to see, and she would not disappoint her fans tonight. With nine pieces including a horn section behind her I suppose that the sound of Ms. James, who grew up in a Los Angeles brothel, owed more to the style of Mr. Andrews than that of Keb’ Mo’. That said, when she came out and straddled her chair while the Roots band played "Come to Mama," refined was not the word that came to mind. Nor was it when she suggestively touched her microphone stand (or, um, herself) while imbuing the lyrics with all their filthy possibilities. Yeah, much to the delight of everyone present-mingled, perhaps with some embarrassment on the part of the uninitiated few-Etta started her set on a suitably lewd note and went on from there.
Next was a powerful version of her classic "I’d Rather Go Blind," rendered here as "I’d Rather Be a Blind Girl" owing, at least in part and as I understand it, to a dispute over the song’s authorship. The evening progressed with a medley of Otis Redding hits, starting with a rollicking "Hard to Handle" through a softer "Just One More Day" before picking back up with "I Can’t Turn You Loose," back-up vocalist and keyboardist Michael Finnegan providing crucial support. Another cover in Etta’s set was from Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Etta’s old friend and another L.A. blues legend. Long before Prince and even before Frank Zappa (who openly acknowledged the debt he owed him and, in fact, featured Watson on several of his recordings) Watson was the original studio genius writing, performing and producing his own one-of-a-kind creations.
Of course, no Etta James concert would be complete without her biggest hits "At Last" and "Tell Mama," and tonight was no exception. As many times as I’ve heard her sing it, her deadpan delivery of the line "That girl you had didn’t have no sense/She wasn’t worth the time you spent" always cracks me up. I guess the blues is funny ‘cause it’s true.
When you think of Etta James, your first image of her is as a R&B barnburner and, of course, she does excel at that type of performance. But two of the best songs of the evening really belied or, at least, augmented that image. Stripping the band down to just herself and the two guitar players-and appealing in her prefatory remarks to the "sophisticated" jazz audience present-she sang an achingly beautiful rendition of "A Lover is Forever," showing a vocal range that is only implicit in most of her work. With the full band minus the horn section back on stage, Etta performed an affecting version of "A Change is Gonna Do Me Good," a nice piece of contemporary country that went over well with the crowd and the only song from her fine new CD Let’s Roll
in her set. Curfew out the Bowl long since passed, Etta rounded out the night with a funky version of Al Green’s "Love and Happiness," the kind of tune that gets you thinking "Am I giving up my journalistic detachment by getting up and dancing" and then quickly forgetting such considerations in the moment.
So, there’s Chicago Blues-you can see the progression from Muddy Waters and Little Walter, through Magic Slim to Son Seals and beyond, and of course Muddy is part of the Delta lineage that goes from Charley Patton to Robert Johnson, and so on. But despite all the great artists from the area, no one speaks of the L.A. Blues (well, Iggy Pop and the Stooges have a song by that name, but that’s something completely different). I think that’s a tribute to what Los Angeles and Southern California are all about. In a region that includes the beach and the desert, the mountains and the valleys, the only uniformity is diversity and, on this great night at the Hollywood Bowl, excellent musicianship and the healing power of the blues.