Best part of stretching the parameters of the blues is the absence of tired standards (“Blues Is All Right,””Sweet Home Chicago,” etc.) that make some daylong affairs a wearying blend of guitar solos and sing-alongs. Combine that with the freshness of the material — and there was no shortage of well-known cover tunes — and the spiciness of the performances, and you have an agreeable model for future blues fests.
B.B. King and his 13-piece orchestra was a fitting topper, energetic and crisp with shades of jazz adding a delightful tang to King’s big-band blues. King still possesses a full roar, but his dexterity has begun to falter — often he talk-sang to mixed results (“Five Long Years” worked, “We’re Gonna Make It” was iffy). His guitar playing, however, was biting and poignant, with the sting of his influential work intact. Speculating on the source of his drive this particular evening may be foolhardy, but he is within a month of his 71st birthday, and reports from a Santa Barbara concert last week said it showed. King, as smooth a performer as this world has ever seen, played this night with purpose.
Performing, too, with a newfound sense of purpose made the Neville Brothers the evening’s winner in showing how blues is more conceptual than a series of chords.
In a set that included works by Bill Withers, the Beatles, T-Bone Walker, Albert King and Dobie Gray, the Nevilles did it all in overdrive. Clearly, the shows that emphasized Aaron’s angelic voice are a thing of the past; keyboardist Art Neville, who sat out a previous tour due to back problems, is back and playing with the sizzle and funk he employed during his Meters days.
And Cyril Neville has come out from behind his percussion instruments to fire up this unit and provide a bona fide front man, turning a blues classic, “Born Under a Bad Sign” (with equally jagged guitar lines from Taj Mahal), and Lennon-McCartney’s “Come Together” into wild New Orleans funk forays.
Delbert McClinton provided some potent Southern soul with his crack seven-piece band, turning his attention to a solid block of covers highlighted by a driving version of “You Are My Sunshine.” Taj Mahal (reviewed Daily Variety , March 29) was his usual sharp-as-a-tack self and smoked the living daylights out of “I Need Your Lovin ” from his new Private Music disc.