Proctor’s Theatre, Nov. 13
Solid Blues, last week’s stellar show at Proctor’s featuring gospel belter Mavis Staples, harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite, youthful roots trio the North Mississippi Allstars and New Orleans piano professor Joe Krown showed what a big tent the blues has become since its beginnings in Mississippi and East Texas. The lucky listeners in the Schenectady landmark were treated to not only top-shelf blues but soul, gospel, protest songs, and even early country music in a performance that served as a potent reminder of why the music of the American South became the envy of all the world.
The concert opened with Joe Krown seated at a Steinway grand parked on stage right. A 50-ish ivory tickler in a century-old tradition going back through Dr. John and Professor Longhair all the way to Jelly Roll Morton, Krown unfurled a quartet of tangy instrumentals that ranged from boogie-woogie to early jazz. The highlight of the brief set was his original tune “Old Friends,” a slow, meandering ballad.
North Mississippi Allstars, a threesome from that state’s hill country
consisting of brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson on guitars and drums
and bassist Chris Chew, followed. The Allstars, who later on backed
Musselwhite and Staples, began acoustically, with Luther and Cody on
delivering savory lead picking in a bluesy version of the Carter Family
chestnut “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Shortly afterward, Luther
plugged in an electric guitar and Cody switched to drums for an electric
segment that included Bob Dylan’s unfortunately relevant “Masters of
War” and the Marvellettes girl-group classic “Beechwood 4-5789” with
Chew on vocals.
Charlie Musselwhite, one of today’s top blues harp players (disclosure: Musselwhite wrote the foreword to my book, Masters of the Blues Harp), kicked off the second set with his driving original “The Blues Overtook Me.” The 63-year-old bluesman sang in a gravelly baritone, and in his solo breaks whizzed around the harmonica like a hummingbird, pulling off tasty and often difficult riffs with aplomb. Also memorable was his tune “Black Water,” a half-spoken, half-sung lament about the damage from Hurricane Katrina interspersed with desolate, moaning harmonica interludes.
Capping the bill was Mavis Staples, 68, from Mississippi’s renowned gospel group the Staple Singers. A vocal powerhouse, Staples was much more of a soul singer than a blues chanteuse, shouting, testifying, and bedazzling with her gritty alto. Her first offering was J. B. Lenoir’s grim description of the murderous Jim Crow South, “Down in Mississippi.” In her 40-minute set, she also tore through the Band’s “The Weight” and the traditional gospel anthem “Eyes on the Prize.” Her closer, with Known joining in, was a high-voltage medley of “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Aside from the high quality of the music, there was a heartening symmetry in the lineup of performers: Three were older, three were younger. Three hands to pass down the roots music tradition, three hands to carry it on.
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