Maybe it was the steep ticket prices or the absence of big-name drawing power, but the second annual Willie Dixon Tribute attracted only a couple of hundred blues lovers to the Palace on Tuesday. The six-hour concert was a benefit for the nonprofit Blues Heaven Foundation, which was founded in 1981 by Dixon, the late Chicago blues songwriter-bassist-producer.
The performances inevitably suffered from the sparse turnout and from the three-song set syndrome, but the musicians still evoked the spirit of the blues. Backed by a well-rehearsed sextet augmented by two horn players, most of the performers saluted Dixon's formidable songwriting legacy, avoiding repetition of the same few songs.
The music spanned the full range of blues styles, from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and its rock derivatives. Sherry Clarke got things off to a promising start with Dixon's favorite song, "It Don't Make Sense You Can't Make Peace," while Becky Barksdale sported Doc Martens and an overblown grunge blues sound. Jimmy Ripp offered guitar heroics faithful to traditional forms, and ex-Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers over-sang on "Hoochie Coochie Man" while turning in a brisk performance of "I'm Ready."
The economy displayed by Robert Jr. Lockwood, a contemporary of Robert Johnson's, stood in marked contrast to the evening's more excessive moments. Cash McCall mixed in a gospel selection with up-tempo blues, and the nature of the gig forced Little Milton to rely on his clear, ringing guitar and expressive singing rather than show-biz shtick, to excellent effect.