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Blues in debasement

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Blues musicians aren't born old. The 60s-era "rediscovery" of aging blues greats gave birth to an enduring image of elderly gentlemen picking guitars on rural front porches or blowing harmonica in forsaken urban gin mills, wizened by years of anonymous hard living. But the wistful melancholy of Skip James or the haunted introspection of Lightnin' Hopkins becomes even more remarkable when one listens to some of their early recordings and remembers that these songs were created by young men in their prime, abrim with youthful exuberance yet still capable of crafting sophisticated folk poetry.

The prevailing wisdom, though, is that throughout their careers the earlier blues musicians tended to be more mature than the current crop. Most people point to modern blues lyrics, which they feel lack the emotional depth that often characterizes the blues of older musicians.

It seems to me that a more important difference lies in the playing of the music. Artists ranging from stars like Robert Cray to up-and-comers like Chicago's Lil' Ed are capable of surprisingly mature self-examination in their lyrics. But a similar sense of maturity in the construction of instrumental solos is sadly lacking in many cases. Dizzy Gillespie once confessed it took him a lifetime to learn what not to play. It's difficult to say whether modern artists lack the musical sensitivity of their forebears, or whether there are simply more notes in the air these days for them to absorb. Whatever the reason, few contemporary young musicians seem able to tone down the energy level and let the most distinctive characteristic of blues music--its eloquent simplicity--speak for itself.

Judge "Lucky" Peterson, in his mid-20s, is the living embodiment of youth. Lithe and wiry, he dashes from electric keyboard to acoustic piano and then straps on his guitar, hands flailing joyously through the octaves, face split wide by a toothy grin. Even more impressive, he's got the musical facility to back it up: his keyboard work combines fleet upper-register bursts with swinging boogie-woogie bass. On guitar he sometimes seems on the verge of getting carried away by his own still-developing technical expertise. His solos take on a life of their own and threaten to overwhelm the song they're supposed to be enhancing.

Last weekend at B.L.U.E.S., Peterson thrilled the audience with his musicianship and his antics. As a crowd-pleasing display of technical wizardry and audacious showmanship, his performance was unassailable. As a continuation of an honored musical tradition, however, it fell short.

Peterson is nothing if not a showman. He'll break off in mid-solo for some casual banter with his band, or carry his guitar the length of the club to make faces through the window at passersby, all the while firing off kinetic treble screams. In and of itself, of course, there's nothing wrong with this: clowning and crowd-pleasing have been an integral component of blues performances dating back at least to Charlie Patton. But an artist runs a serious risk if he lets his flamboyance cross the line from brash irreverence to disrespect for his own art. At B.L.U.E.S. it seemed that Peterson crossed that line on several occasions.

Peterson's recent LP on Alligator, Lucky Strikes, seemed to portray a young man of maturity beyond his years, seasoned by gigs with the likes of Bobby Bland and Little Milton, ready to share his lessons with the world. Beneath the buoyant party spirit that informed most of the LP was the unmistakable seriousness of a musician who thinks he's got something worthwhile to say. Yet from the first notes of the band's warmup set at B.L.U.E.S.--a rather strange meandering through styles ranging from pop-soul standards (Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On") to modified techno-funk (Prince's "Temptation")--this seriousness was missing.

When Peterson took the stage, his opening number was a rollicking rendition of "Farther On Up the Road," and it set the mood for the evening. Nimble-fingered and dexterous on the keyboard, Peterson pumped up the crowd with crashing chords and grandiose gestures; at times the applause seemed to be as much for his apparently bottomless reserves of energy as for the music. It was an exhilarating performance, nearly obscuring the fact that the eloquent fusion of bitterness and romantic tenderness that characterized Bobby Bland's version and gives the song its distinctive emotional charge was entirely abandoned.

Peterson's band, the Stepchild Blues Band, likewise supported him with roaring energy that left little room for introspection. Even Jimmy Reed, that most relaxed of bluesmen, was given a totally new identity; drummer Darrel Pierce and bassist Dale Horton burdened Reed's "You Don't Have to Go" with a ponderous metallic shuffle beat in an apparent attempt to transform Reed's tale of melancholy resignation into an anthem.

The most jarring interpretation, however, came on "Little Red Rooster." Peterson opened it up with a series of string bends as the band churned out a riff that sounded like Little Milton's well-known cover of Johnnie Taylor's "Little Bluebird." Whether the aviary musical pun was intentional is uncertain, but Peterson's "Rooster" was definitely a bird of an entirely different color. At one point he dropped to his knees in front of the stage and played several measures almost squashed to the floor. When he finally regained his feet he strode through the crowd while continuing to play.

Peterson didn't start to sing "Rooster" until he was in the middle of the room, without benefit of a microphone. He proceeded to transform Willie Dixon's legendary sexual anthem into a novelty tune, leading the crowd in a series of barks, howls, and whoops ("The dogs begin to bark, the hounds begin to howl"); the sense of menace that had permeated Howlin' Wolf's classic rendition was entirely forsaken. Peterson's guitar solo spat boiling metallic fragments all over the place with a tubular, keening tone and brought the crowd roaring to its feet.

One can't fault a musician for reinterpreting a standard. Sam Cooke did just that to "Little Red Rooster," transforming Dixon and Wolf's primal growl into a soulful, good-natured tribute to roots. But throughout the evening, Peterson's hyperactive showmanship and his tendency to interrupt himself with silly comments or noodling trivialized much of the material until one wasn't sure how seriously even Peterson took it all.

Such trivializing marred even the evening's finest moments. When Peterson deigned to play a song straight, the results were satisfying. His revved-up approach to soloing is appropriate to what most nightclub audiences expect, and Peterson is fully capable of giving them a show that's both fun and musically challenging.

But he can't seem to let it rest. He and the band got into a complex rhythmic interplay on "Woke Up This Morning"; bassist Horton laid down a loping New Orleans-style pattern and second guitarist George Taylor accentuated the vaguely Caribbean feel with rolling chords that sounded like the famous guitar riff from Sam Cooke's "Cupid." Peterson's solo was light and airy, and he showed some impressive improvisational imagination. But when he broke a string and sat down at the keyboard to finish his solo, he inexplicably shut the band down in mid-bar and pumped out a calliope-like "Jingle Bells," entirely destroying what had been the most sophisticated mood of the night.

Perhaps Peterson's interest wanes when he's playing material other than his own. He seemed to take things more seriously when he delved into songs from his recent album, such as "Pounding of My Heart," a harsh funk-blues that found the band kicking in enthusiastically behind his hot keyboard work. Peterson's years as a sideman in bands such as Bobby Bland's have served him well; he lays down a tight rhythmic pocket for the bass and drums, even as he soars ecstatically above and around the melody line with his jagged right-hand explorations. His smooth Jack McDuff-like swing toward the beginning soon gave way to a series of pounding blues-rock punches, and the Stepchild Blues Band responded with some of their most coherent comping of the night. Even this one, though, was marred by an overlong rave-up finale.

He kicked off "Can't Get No Loving on the Telephone" with a series of "Dust My Broom" triplets on the electric keyboard and then scurried over to the house acoustic piano, where he played some tinkling bluesy treble runs to the delight of the audience. Then it was back to the electric keyboard and finally to the guitar in the evening's most brazen display of versatility, with the childlike enthusiasm that Peterson radiates when he's going full blast.

Unfortunately, though, that enthusiasm too often crossed over into something approaching outright musical sabotage. Saint Louis Jimmy's "Going Down Slow" was taken at an uptempo roar, based very loosely on the arrangement made popular by Bobby Bland; Junior Wells uses the same arrangement when he performs the song. It might be expecting too much to ask a vigorous young man like Peterson to perform "Going Down Slow" with appropriate weariness, but it's nonetheless unsettling to hear mournful testimony of the ravages of the blues life transformed into a jaunty party tune. One might as well expect an R & B jump outfit to play Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" as a rock-and-roll shuffle.

Lucky Peterson carries his talent like an electric wire, spurting energy and sparks. That approach works on his own high-velocity shuffles and funk-blues, written and arranged for a band of brash young musicians with little apparent desire to pay homage to what came before. But it's questionable whether a musician can create anything of lasting value unless he feels some kind of kinship with the legacy of his tradition. Chicagoans Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby are bluesmen who blaze new trails while making clear their musical inheritance. It may be symbolic that Branch has dubbed his band the Sons of Blues, while Peterson's sidemen are called the Stepchild Blues Band. For all his much-discussed childhood lessons at the feet of blues masters, Lucky Peterson has yet to show that he feels anything but once removed from the people who sired the music he plays.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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