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POP MUSIC REVIEW : ‘Swamp Boogie Queen’ Thins the Stew

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Strange and often not entirely wonderful transformations can occur when someone gets the notion to take a regional delicacy and to package it for mass appeal.

It happens with food (ever tried the Cajun chicken at Denny’s?) and it has happened time and again with music. For every successful example like Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, which brought African, Zydeco, country, rockabilly and pop influences to a wider audience, there are a dozen instances where the local flavor of the source gets lost in the translation.

Katie Webster, dubbed “the Swamp Boogie Queen” for her bawdy and invigorating gumbo of blues, stride piano and New Orleans R&B; styles, treaded uncomfortably close to Las Vegas showroom slickness several times during her performance Tuesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, where she opened for Albert Collins.

Born in Houston, Webster has spent much of her life in and around Lake Charles, La., and the New Orleans influence of the likes of Professor Longhair, Huey (Piano) Smith and other predecessors is unmistakable in her keyboard work.

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She has a new album, titled (surprise!) “The Swamp Boogie Queen,” that’s getting a big push toward commercial radio air play, perhaps in the hope of riding Robert Cray’s coattails from the distaff side.

There is no reason Webster’s hickory-smoked voice shouldn’t be plastered over the radio waves.

But in trying to sound “contemporary,” the one-time backup singer for Otis Redding risks squeezing the character out of her music-making, both on the record and in concert.

At last year’s Long Beach Blues Festival--where performers don’t have to sell audiences on roots music--she galvanized the fans with a solo, midday performance that emphasized her strengths: gritty vocals that can swoop from flighty exuberance to tortured soul, and her juke-joint jammin’ on the ivories.

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At the Coach House, she was backed by a three-man band that was versatile and undeniably tight, but sometimes excessively precise. Webster’s blues and “swamp music” need to be loose and freewheeling to work their charm, an effect she most often achieved when the band dropped back or out of the picture.

Given some room, her pumping piano proved again that you don’t need a digital synthesizer to render a rhythm section irrelevant--just a strong left hand.

The hands-down peak of her set was the gospel-blues medley “Lord, I Wonder,” during which the band members set aside their instruments and grabbed tambourines, drum sticks or any other percussive items handy to accompany her piano.

Granted the musical acreage that she roams so well, Webster was far more convincing than when she resorted to histrionics and vocal overkill on Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” (which, even with the lapses, produced some spine-chilling moments).

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Speaking of histrionics, headliner Albert Collins (who was reviewed at length after an April show at the Coach House), stuck to his usual blueprint of instrumental breast-beating, bug-eyed facial expressions, talking-guitar licks and macho posturing. But with the help of his powerhouse Ice Breakers band--which included the rarity of a woman blues guitarist, Los Angelino Debbie Davis--Collins still managed to squeeze some potent blues in along with the antics.


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