POP MUSIC REVIEW : Blues Veteran Gives Boogie a Good Name

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<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Alot of obnoxious music has been made in the name of “boogie.” In the hands of players such as George Thorogood and myriad “Dixie Rock” bands from the ‘70s, “boogie” and “mindless” practically became synonyms. To this day, to many would-be boogie bands and their (usually wobbling-drunk) fans, the music need only be fast, raucous and mind-blotting.

John Lee Hooker calls himself the “king of boogie,” but don’t blame him. At the Coach House on Thursday night, the 71-year-old patriarch of hard-driving blues showed that boogie need not equal raunch. For much of his hourlong set, he sang incantatory blues, evoking the hidden churnings of deeply troubled minds.

Hooker came up a bit short on “Boom Boom.” His trademark, guttural epithet “how-how-how” wasn’t as resonant and salacious as it might have been. But his red electric guitar did set a suitably raw and nasty tone with brief, dirty bursts plucked out with thumb and forefinger. Hooker keyed the boogies with rude riffs, then let his five-man Coast to Coast Blues Band carry on with sharp soloing.


Still, the show was noteworthy less for its boogies than for its mantras--which is what Hooker’s deepest slow blues of the evening sounded like. “Stormy Monday,” written by T-Bone Walker, the mentor who gave Hooker his first electric guitar 40 years ago, became an acute psychodrama.

Instead of overacting the part of a guilt-stricken man who prays on his knees on Sundays because of the horrible things he does on Saturday nights, Hooker delivered the song with a control that made it all the more gripping.

“I ain’t gonna raise hell no more . . . no more . . . no more,” he intoned, saying that Sunday prayer. The repetition of words and fragments--the mantra effect--was a device Hooker used throughout the concert to capture the obsessive turning of a guilty, sincerely sorrowful mind. Open-ended song structures allowed Hooker to go on with his low, baleful recitations until he decided he had exhausted a song’s dramatic possibilities.

The band didn’t let Hooker do all the emoting: Deacon Jones laid down a moaning organ wail during the instrumental break on “Stormy Monday,” and lead guitarist Michael Osborn cut with hard, chopping chords in an effective representation of pain and strife. Throughout the show, Osborn’s clean, stinging tones provided a nice contrast to Hooker’s scowling, jagged-edged sound.

Saxophonist Kenny Baker was another soloist who shaped sounds into meanings, especially with his sobbing bursts during “Serve You Right to Suffer.”

Hooker, dressed in his usual suit and fedora, waited until the end to get up from his chair. Then he led the band on an extended boogie, calling for solos as he roamed the front of the stage, slapping hands with members of the exuberant audience in the half-full nightclub.


Before Hooker came on, a young female singer, Vala Cupp, fronted the Coast to Coast band for 15 minutes, displaying a powerful, belt-it-out voice. But Cupp lacked the personality to take over a song, and her singing sounded less like spontaneous personal expression than a deliberate attempt to re-create an authentic blues style.

Charlie Musselwhite’s 70-minute opening set was capably played but uninspiring.

After opening on a too-even keel with three mid-tempo shuffles, Musselwhite and his three-piece band, the Silent Partners, warmed up and scored with such up-tempo numbers as “Hey, Miss Bessie,” a double-entendre song ostensibly about the culinary pleasures to be sampled in a late-night barbecue joint.

Musselwhite’s raspy singing was adequate but not distinctive. His harmonica playing was fluid, with some strong high-note bursts, but it became predictable after a while.

Guitarist Andrew Jones’ solos were a consistent treat. He was a clean, supple player with keen timing, which enabled him to shift tonal and rhythmic direction and, without resorting to flashy excess, to maintain a sense of surprise as to where he might go next.

Unfortunately, Jones and Musselwhite took their extended solos in turn rather than attempting trade-off passages that might have sparked the show beyond solid competence.