Elvis Costello, The Roots, Macy Gray Celebrate Robert Johnson at the Apollo: Concert Review

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A star-studded, eclectic line-up delivers a fitting 100th birthday tribute to the blues legend. 

It may have technically been a year late, but the centennial birthday tribute to Robert Johnson at the Apollo Theater was a fitting celebration of one of the most influential musicians who ever lived. Johnson recorded a mere 29 songs in two sessions more than seven decades ago, and a star-studded line-up performed a good portion of them. If the blues legend did indeed sell his soul to the devil, his spirit is clearly still reaping the rewards.

An eclectic assemblage of musicians gathered for this evening designed to raise funds for the building of a blues hall of fame in Memphis. Besides a gallery of blues artists, there were representatives from the worlds of rock (Living Colour, Todd Rundgren), soul (Macy Gray), hip-hop (Chuck D), and Latin music (Pedrito Martinez Group), among many others.


Hosted by actor Joe Morton, the evening appropriately opened with an invocation by the Reverend Steven Johnson, Johnson’s grandson. The truly awesome house band featured no less than Keb Mo, Colin Linden and James Blood Ulmer on guitar; Sugar Blue on harmonica; Willie Weeks on bass; and Steve Jordan on drums.

Mirroring Johnson’s penchant for recording alternate takes, there were fascinating dual versions of some of his best-known numbers on display. Otis Taylor’s lean, solo acoustic version of “Kindhearted Woman” was immediately followed by a full-out rocking one by Todd Rundgren. After Taj Mahal’s powerful, traditional “Hellhound on My Trail,” guitarist Ulmer delivered a mesmerizing variation featuring his trademark pitch-bending dissonance that inspired Rundgren to comment to him afterwards, “You’re freakin’ me out!”

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Keb Mo -- with his lanky physique, sharp suit and hat, and virtuosic acoustic guitar playing -- seemed a virtual reincarnation of Johnson, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1938. His solo renditions of the classics “Crossroads Blues” and “Love in Vain” were show highlights.

Other performers offered more diverse interpretations. Elvis Costello sang “From Four Till Late” in a gentle, British music hall style. (“They don’t allow hellhounds on our trail in England,” he sardonically commented. “They worst we get is bloodhounds.”) The Roots transformed “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” into an extended suite showcasing their typically imaginative arrangements. Chuck D, accompanied by a dancing Hinton Battle, rapped his way through “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.” And the Pedrito Martinez Group turned “Travelin’ Riverside Blues” into an extended Latin jam.

At two hours and 40 minutes, the show could have done without the inclusion of non-Johnson songs from the period performed by such acts as the Dough Rollers, a guitar and vocal duo. But there’s no point in quibbling when there were also such great moments as Living Colour’s searing “Preachin’ Blues”; Bettye Lavette’s soulful “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man”; Macy Gray’s sultry “Come On in My Kitchen”; and the great Sam Moore singing “Sweet Home Chicago.”    

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