All-Stars Honor Robert Johnson at Centennial Celebration
In Sherman Alexie’s 1995 novel Reservation Blues, a bedeviled black man named Robert Johnson, dressed in a brown suit with a scuffed-up guitar slung over his shoulder, shows up mysteriously on the contemporary Spokane Indian Reservation, where he abandons his possessed six-string and heads into the mountains to be healed by the spiritual doctor. In the book’s Acknowledgments section, Alexie writes: “Most of all, I want to honor the memory of the real Robert Johnson. Without his music, none of the music contained in this book would exist.”
The myth of Johnson’s life may be an American Faustian tale of glory and tragedy at the “crossroads,” but his music is the real story.
On March 6, Harlem’s Apollo Theater hosted “Robert Johnson At 100,” an all-star program that ranged from Chuck D’s hip-hop and Elvis Costello’s blues-drenched pop to acoustic, blues-steeped beauties by Keb Mo, Otis Taylor and Taj Mahal. Though the event was staged a year late (Johnson was born in 1911), it proved to be a rousing and inspiring celebration of the guitarist/vocalist’s work.
Widely renowned today as a blues legend, Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27, leaving behind a mere 29 songs, which he recorded in two sessions in 1936 and ’37 for Texas-based Brunswick Records. Johnson’s songs provide a documentation of the development of the blues, and they offer rich fodder for modern interpretations, which the Apollo show so impressively displayed.
The event was directed and hosted by event producer Joe Morton, who smartly enlisted a stellar group of musicians to serve as the house band. Led by drummer Steve Jordan, the sextet also included Keb Mo, James Blood Ulmer and Colin Linden on guitars; Willie Weeks on bass; and Sugar Blue on harmonica. Keb Mo emerged into the spotlight on a number of occasions to raise up Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues,” “Love in Vain” and, with singer Sarah Dash, “Honeymoon Blues.”
The band was the backbone for a two-and-a-half-hour concert that consisted of more than 30 songs. Several tunes were performed as distinctly different readings: Taylor, for example, performed a solo banjo accompaniment of his thick blues rendering of “Kindhearted Woman” followed by an up-tempo, rocking version of the same song by guitarist Todd Rundgren.
Noteworthy appearances included performances by Bettye LaVette, the Roots, Shemekia Copeland, Living Colour and Sam Moore. LaVette, who said it was the first time she had been on the Apollo stage since 1965, delivered a sassy and sweet reading of “I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man” and delivered a delicious duet with Mahal on “When You Got A Friend.” The Roots, with tuba bass, started out slow on “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” before exploding into a hard groove with an electric exuberance.
A half-dozen songs later, Living Colour ignited with a renegade funk-rock flight through “Preachin’ Blues,” featuring thumping bass and the crunching grinds of Will Calhoun’s drum rhythms. Copeland joined the band for her bluesy “Stop Breakin’ Down,” spotlighting guitarist Vernon Reid’s extended blues-roller lead guitar break. And for those in the crowd who didn’t quite get the significance of President Obama recently singing “Sweet Home Chicago” at a White House blues concert, Moore brought home the Johnson legacy with a deep-blue, fluid interpretation of the song.
In this quick-moving concert of Johnson’s iconic songs (including “Hellhound On My Trail,” “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Stones In My Passway”), the finale brought the house to its feet as Living Colour, Mahal, Keb Mo, LaVette and several others linked up with the young guitarist Patrick Droney—who was awarded the 2006 Robert Johnson Blues Foundation prize—for a fully charged spin through “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day.”
The evening was a benefit for the campaign to build the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tenn., and was staged by the city’s nonprofit Blues Foundation.