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O.C. POP MUSIC WEEKEND : Blues Reign in O.C. Despite Sunny Skies

It’s almost a shame it didn’t rain on the Benson & Hedges Blues concert Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheatre. A continuation of the downpour and blustery winds that started the afternoon would have provided an ideal mood setting for the inclemency classics offered during the seven-hour show. Hearing Irma Thomas’ emotion-drenched “It’s Raining” or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s storm-driven “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” in their natural element would have been well worth a soaking.

As it was, the capacity 19,000-plus crowd was forced to make do with a perfectly sunny afternoon and warm evening full of splendid music, provided by the above and by B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Dr. John and Joe Cocker. With a kickoff like this, one suspects the event (we’re trying not to say Benson & Hedges too often here) may have found a permanent home in the L.A. area.

Dr. John, fronting a cooking seven-piece band, started the show with a spicy set of R&B; done New Orleans-style. That included his current remake of “Makin’ Whoopee” and an infectiously rollicking version of the late piano master Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.”

His band also provided an excellent backup for Irma Thomas, though her voice--one of the finest instruments R&B; has ever produced--was often obscured by one of the most godawful sound mixes ever encountered at a professional venue. Even with a booming bass, baritone sax, guitar and piano treading over her singing, on “Sorry Wrong Number,” “It’s Raining,” Bobby Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You” and two others, she displayed a power and ache perhaps currently equaled only by Etta James.

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To really experience John Lee Hooker, it’s necessary to see him perform solo. Not to detract from his tight Coast to Coast Blues Band, but the 72-year-old singer-guitarist’s genius becomes most evident when he is able to disregard the rules necessary to play with an ensemble. Alone and at his best, he is able to create a unique, free-flowing universe of sound, immediate and made of pure emotion.

But because he rarely performs without the band, and this wasn’t one of those rare times, the audience had to be content with a rousing, if somewhat rote, set from the boogie master. He played few solos, though he managed to turn in a snarling, chaos-courting solo on “I’m in the Mood” without ever even moving his fingers above the second fret of his neck. Pumped by the band, his classic “Boom Boom” showed that Hooker could still teach young rappers a thing or two about injecting menace into a lyric.

Though also mired by a miserable sound mix, Stevie Ray Vaughan turned in a typically spectacular set. With Vaughan’s expressive, gritty voice and masterful synthesis of Jimi Hendrix’s and Albert King’s guitar styles, the only thing a frequent listener can fault is that he doesn’t challenge himself more.

Still, it’s hard to quibble with perfection, and his 14-song set was just about that, particularly on the torrid Guitar Slim blues “Things That I Used to Do” and the atmospheric instrumental “Riviera Paradise,” with its lush jazz chording, unbelievably fast runs and choked cries.

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While the annual Long Beach Blues Festival could do well to broaden its definition of blues a bit when setting its lineup, the organizers of this fest may have stepped a bit too far outside the boundaries in booking Joe Cocker. In his uneven 14-song set, Cocker’s power-sander voice did indeed take some bluesy turns, notably on Randy Newman’s salacious “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and the somewhat disco-ized version of Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart.”

But he also delivered bloated genericisms such as “Up Where We Belong” and “When the Night Comes,” helped little by a band that clearly shops on Spandex Street. Still, it was big fun to hear Cocker unleash that tortured Woodstock gargle of his on “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and he still plays the most polluted air guitar on the planet.

After B.B. King’s more than 40 years in music, his performances remain a revelation. As the world’s most heralded “ambassador of the blues"--including the numbing rounds of Vegas shows, TV appearances and the fair circuit--he could well be expected to be a complacent showman.

Instead, his singing and playing have stayed as fresh and emotional as when they first inspired a generation of now-exhausted British bluesmen in the ‘60s. Pushed on by his swinging seven-piece band Saturday, King’s eight-number set included an instrumental where his guitar work’s finger-vibratoed singing tone, hornlike phrasing, blue-bent jazz runs and voicelike cries combined, with each chorus topping the last in invention and feeling. His set closed with a joyous, celebratory version of “When Love Comes to Town,” his 1988 collaboration with U2. Unlike his admiring Irish rockers, instead of just singing about inspiration, King gave a pounding, shouting example of it.

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Closing the show, King, Vaughan and Cocker joined to jam on “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and, like many such events, it was marked more by the players’ staying out of each other’s musical way than by any heated interaction among them.


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