After sporadic appearances over the years, Blues Night at last seems to have become an annual event at Hollywood Bowl, though the issue of how much of this music is real blues can be vigorously debated. Interestingly, it was Robben Ford , the dark-horse act on the bill, who offered the best performance — and, pertinently, the most blues — before roughly 13,770 partisans.
Ford, perhaps best known for his work with Miles Davis and L.A. Express (George Harrison, Joni Mitchell) touring bands, recharged his solo career last year with a nice album for Chick Corea’s GRP-distributed Stretch label. He didn’t need much fanfare or support to launch his arsenal of mean, high-powered, darting blues guitar licks, just a power trio — agile six-string bass guitar and highly syncopated drumming.
Ford’s voice is rather modest, but it served as an attractive foil to his virtuoso guitar, putting over the automotive sex motif of “Start It Up” particularly well.
Etta James has appeared on the last four Bowl blues evenings, and this experienced R&B performer could be relied upon to provide enough vocal growling, rump-rolling and mugging to satisfy a stadium. Yet her performance this time seemed slightly tepid, possibly even fatigued, in comparison with previous years.
Little of her act had changed, from the churning Stax-style band to the perennial “Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” warhorses.
As for Polygram artist Robert Cray, it is no great mystery why this healthy, virile virtuoso with the soulful voice, a guitar style like sharp needles and airtight band continues to fall short of his potential. It’s the lackluster material — one pedestrian R&B number after another, capped by a weird, stilted, Latin-tinged tune called “I Was Warned.” Also it was hard to feel any real emotion from this group, however polished the sound.
One must complain about the peculiar, distracting, presumably time-saving staging; Ford was placed at the extreme stage left and James the extreme stage right, with only Cray in the comfortable center.