Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Rockabilly Night at Lincoln Center 8/18/07

The Dixie Hummingbirds opened, playing to a shockingly small crowd in the park out behind the concert hall complex. They were fantastic. Established in 1920, this gospel group gives new meaning to the term long-running. Their oldest member joined as a 13-year-old in 1938 and proved that he still has his pipes, even if he’s due for a knee operation. “You get old, it happens,” he waxed. Backed by a rock-solid rhythm section and a superb guitarist, the gospel harmonizers left no doubt where the soul stars of the 60s got their inspiration, their melodies and even their arrangements and choreography. They may have been playing religious music, but for them it is clearly a religion of passion. Their young bass singer stole the show with some low notes to rival Huun Huur Tu, and their guitarist wound up their set with a long, spectacularly good solo to rival any coda Tony Iommi ever lit into. One would have thought that the Harlem church contingent would have come out in full force, especially as this was a free show, but they didn’t.

Now who wants to hear about a bunch of old geezers playing stuff that every bar band in the country knows by heart. Yawn, right?

Was a time that this stuff was revolutionary. Hard to fathom in the gangsta rap age, until you realize that the songs they played tonight were just as much IF NOT MORE reviled than the raunchiest Fitty number you can imagine. And the guys onstage got it right, making sure they included plenty of R&B – real R&B, not the stuff that Macy Gray does – and gospel and blues and a Chuck Berry number to go along with the barrelhouse boogie and the country and the embryonic rock they played tonight. Half a century ago, racists across the country would stage bonfires of rock records because they were terrified that their precious, virginal children would listen to black music and actually prefer it to Pat Boone. Allen Freed ended up going to jail for playing rock music. Hard to imagine that happening today to, say, Funkmaster Flex. The songs the band played tonight may sound pretty tame to jaded late-zeros ears, but the band onstage wasn’t. Major props to these guys for taking stuff they must have played literally thousands of times, over and over again and giving it a defiance and passion worthy of players a third their age. It was as if they were just glad to be alive.

One of the reasons that a lot of 50s rock recordings sound pretty harmless compared to what came later is that the people who were making them were using such primitive instruments, amps and studio gear. As guest singer Dale Hawkins told it, in his native Arkansas there weren’t any recording studios. To make a record, you had to go to a radio station between midnight and 1 AM when they were switching between transmission towers. Tonight, with some big Fender tube amps roaring and screaming, it seemed that these musicians were finally giving voice to their songs as they’d originally envisioned them, wild and fiery and absolutely unstoppable.

Backed by a drummer who doubled on harmonica, a young bassist and aptly named piano player David Keys, 67-year-old baritone rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef ran through a whole lot of 50s favorites. While there were some excellent performances tonight, this was his cavalcade of stars and he was its leader. He’s a hell of a guitar player, equally adept at blues as rockabilly, and with his big beautiful hollowbody Gibson roaring with overtones and distortion, he wailed all night long. The songs were familiar: My Gal Is Red Hot, Waltz Across Texas, Polk Salad Annie and something of a surprise, These Boots Are Made for Walking. Keys dazzled on a brief Jerry Lee Lewis medley, and LaBeef did a great job with the Johnny Cash numbers. A couple of times, the band wound up the songs with trick endings followed by excerpts from surf songs.

After about half an hour, LaBeef brought up the night’s first special guest, blues guitarist Larry Johnson, whose amp was stuck on standby for awhile before the roadies finally got it to work. “I’ve had moments like this,” he told the crowd. “One time I got to a club and the mic didn’t work, so I got paid and left.” He then did Mystery Train and then the haunting, minor-key gospel tune Can’t You Hear the Angels Crying.

Philadelphia singer Charlie Gracie – “the only Yankee on the bill,” as he put it – sang Butterfly, the relatively innocuous pop single that knocked Elvis Presley off of #1 on the charts for the first time, and then delivered an absolutely sizzling guitar instrumental. If anything, he’s twice as good as he was fifty years ago: something to aspire to. Dale Hawkins reminded the crowd how important gospel was to early rock, leading the crowd in a singalong with a jaunty version of his signature song Susie Q (a gospel ripoff, he explained), strikingly similar to the Creedence cover. In a particularly talkative mood, he demonstrated how Willie Dixon turned a Sister Rosetta Tharp gospel number into My Baby Don’t Stand No Fooling (a hit for both Hawkins and Little Walter). He also led the band through a particularly soulful version of the Ray Charles classic I Got a Woman, complete with an excellent harmonica solo from the drummer and an even more energetic one from Keys.

The night’s only Branson moments came toward the end, when 60s Texas white funk singer Roy Head – who seemed pretty drunk – took the stage and did a forgettable James Brown impersonation. Naturally, it was this clown that the crowd decided to get up and dance to. At the end, the whole crew wrapped it up with a medley, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (a final nod to the bluegrass influence in early rock) and then a singalong on Amazing Grace. A clinic in American music from some of its more inspired practitioners.

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August 19, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments