There's always a festive atmosphere when the King of the Blues brings his blues festival to town. B.B. invites top blues acts to perform with him and this year was no exception, with Buddy Guy, John Hiatt and the Goners, and Tommy Castro joining Mr. King for a great evening of blues under perfect skies. The amphitheater is a great place to hear music when the weather cooperates, as it did this evening. With padded benches with backs, sloping slightly down to the stage, the facility offers excellent sound, good sight lines, and an overall fan-friendly layout.
Just before Tommy Castro came out to kick things off, the sun burned through the clouds for a golden sunset. Wearing his trademark leather pants and black shirt, Tommy ripped into a brief guitar-driven instrumental. The band played "Chairman of the Board," with sax man Michael Crossan and bass player Randy McDonald providing harmony on the refrain and moving and playing in unison with Tommy. This is a road-tested band that many blues fans have observed sounds better every time you hear them. They definitely were in top form, solidly backing Tommy as he flashed his charismatic smile, walking and playing to the funky beat of "When I Was a Young Man." Tommy has been with his sax and bass players for over 10 years and their great interplay adds much to the music. Tommy played "It Serves Me Right" in tribute to the late, great John Lee Hooker, wowing the crowd with his powerful guitar licks while standing on the edge of the stage. Slowing down, he gave a taste of excellent, slower picking, eventually building to a howling guitar climax, finished off with a few John Lee Hooker riffs. Tommy then played "Guilty of Love," title track of his soon to be released CD. This is a catchy song that should do well on radio given that it features John Lee Hooker's last recorded performance, assisting Tommy on vocals. While only about 35 min. in length, Tommy's set got the crowd energized and ready for more.
John Hiatt excels as a brilliant songwriter, yet his performance with the Goners, featuring Sonny Landreth, proves that he is also a great live performer. They plunged into "Lincolntown," a blues rocker that showcased the powerful, rippling slide-guitar of Sonny. This band has a lot of experience playing with each other, as John mentioned in the intro to "Slow Turning." John played acoustic, mugging and dancing for the crowd, play-acting along with the song, as Sonny added the ethereal sound of his slide-guitar. John's rubber-legged dancing and sense of humor adds to the humor and observations on life written into his songs. Hiatt is also an accomplished keyboard player, accompanying himself on several songs including the mid-tempo, rocking blues of "My Old Friend" from his soon to be released CD, The Tiki Bar is Open. Judging from the reflective lyrics and nice, steady beat of this song, John remains at the top of his form as a songwriter. After thanking B.B. and Eric for making it a hit 17 years after he wrote it, John did "Riding with the King" accompanied by some wicked slide by Sonny. With the crowd on their feet clapping and cheering, the band came out with "Have a Little Faith." Here John demonstrated the range of his warm, down-home voice. After thanking Bonnie Raitt for the new tires for the tour bus they were able to buy when she covered the song, the group closed with an enthusiastic playing of "A Thing Called Love."
As soon as Buddy Guy stepped out hundreds of fans rushed into the space right in front of the stage to see him up close. Launching into "Got My Mojo Working" Buddy blew the crowd away with his great, powerful guitar playing and smooth, passionate vocals. Keyboard player Tony Z. contributed some great B-3 sound to the mix. Buddy gave the crowd an inspired version of "5 Long Years," with great, dramatic vocals, powerful guitar licks, and movement from one side of the stage to another as he hit at his guitar strings with his guitar cord. Buddy followed with "Baby Please Don't Leave" from his last CD. Buddy then gave his blues history lesson by doing "Hoochie Coochie Man," part of John Lee Hooker's "Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom," and a few Junior Wells' riffs. Starting "Tramp" with his powerful guitar licks from the edge of the stage, Buddy went down the steps into the crowd with a cordless mike and guitar pick-up, playing all the way to the back of the amphitheater and back again as the crowd stood and cheered. Buddy switched to acoustic guitar and began "I'm Growing Old." Smiling as he played, Buddy switched back to his electric guitar for an intense climax. Buddy brought things home with hot, howling guitar licks and screaming vocals on "Damn Right I've Got the Blues." After taking a few bows, Buddy and his band exited to make room for B.B. King.
B.B. King's band warmed up by playing two instrumentals which gave all of the band members a chance to solo. Then B.B. and his guitar Lucille came out, starting with the up-tempo, happy blues of "Let the Good Times Roll." B.B. demonstrated how less can be more as he played fewer notes, but each ringing with a clear, rich tone to punctuate the song. After the first song B.B. commented he was sorry he had to sit down and play now but he's 75 with bad knees. He also said it was great to see all the kids in the crowd getting exposed to the blues. B.B. looks and sounds great, his rich, expressive voice strong and distinctive as his guitar chords. B.B. sang "Bad Case of Love" with some nice horn sounds and rich B-3 tones supporting him, letting his "young" guitar player do the heavy lifting as he sang. Young meaning younger than B.B. In the middle of his set the horns took a break, leaving B.B. and his smaller group to show that B.B. remains an excellent guitar player and strong blues singer, but more than that an entertainer, as he demonstrated on the rolling blues beat of "Rock Me Baby." Here the crowd was up dancing and sang the refrain along with B.B. at his urging. The horn section rejoined B.B. for an inspired playing of "The Thrill is Gone." B.B. played some great guitar licks, at one point playing with one hand as he pumped his fist in the air. While most blues artists would not want to follow Buddy Guy, The King of the Blues proved once again that he remains not only the best-known artist and ambassador of the blues, but a tremendous musician as well.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Rich Benson, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.