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(Above: Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach lays down some serious blues during “I Got Mine” at the band’s June 4, performance at Crossroads.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When the Black Keys last stopped in the area, they played a converted movie theater packed – but not quite full – with music geeks and underground music fans. Two albums and more than three years later, the Akron, Ohio drums-and-guitar duo returned to Kansas City Friday night before a sold-out throng of both hardcore and casual music lovers at Crossroads.

The crowds were different, but the set-up and arrangements for both shows were basically the same. With drummer Patrick Carney set up at mid-stage right, and guitarist Dan Auerbach at mid-stage left the pair delivered deep Delta blues filtered through several generations of garage rock. It’s Son House via the Stooges.

The pair kicked off with “Thickfreakness,” the title track to their second album, a thick slab of blues originally recorded in Carney’s basement back in 2002. The four songs that followed helped to explain the Keys’ boost in popularity. Although they’ve had no hit singles, several songs have been prominently placed in commercials, TV shows and movies. Ten years ago this was called selling out. Today it’s known as earning a living.

Whether or not fans recognized “10 A.M. Automatic” from “The OC,” saw “Set You Free” in “School of Rock” or learned “Strange Times” from playing “Grand Theft Auto” or watching “Gossip Girl,” nearly all of them sang along and weren’t timid with their whoops and hollers of approval. The band responded by egging them on, like when Auerbach teased a little bit of “Stairway to Heaven” in the intro to “Everywhere I Go.”

About 10 songs into the set, a bass player and keyboardist set up shop on a riser behind Auerbach. Although the number of musicians had doubled, the sound didn’t change too much. As expected, the songs were fuller, but the adding more players was really a testament to how much noise Carney and Auerbach make on their own.

Carney beats drums like they insulted him, but still coaxes subtlety from his kit. Auerbach can switch from bone-dry tone to sounding like an army of guitars with the simple stomp of a pedal. The auxiliary players were rarely able to penetrate this noise, but added nice nuances of texture when they did, like the keyboard part on “Too Afraid To Love You” that sounded like something from the Doors.

The sonic expansion also signaled the introduction of new material. Ostensibly in town to promote “Brothers,” the Keys’ sixth full-length album and best in some time, the quartet peel off nearly half of its tracks in succession. “Brothers” is less than a month old, but the crowd treated its songs with the same gusto they gave “I Got Mine,” a song played incessantly during last year’s baseball playoffs.

The Keys’ 2006 performance tapped out at 75 minutes, which felt like plenty. This time, though, they gave an hour and a half, and left the crowd wanting more. The expansion of their sonic palette delivered by Danger Mouse, who produced their previous album, and their foray into hip hop under the sobriquet Blakroc, tell part of the story. Auerbach told the rest in the lyrics of “Till I Get My Way,” the night’s final song: “don’t you know I will be calling on you every day/till I get my way.” The perseverance paid off.

Setist: Thickfreakness; Girl Is On My Mind; 10 A.M. Automatic; Set You Free; The Breaks; Stack Shot Billy; Busted; Everywhere I Go; Strange Times; Same Old Thing; Tighten Up; Howlin’ For You; Too Afraid To Love You; Next Girl; She’s Long Gone; Ten Cent Pistol; Your Touch; I’ll Be Your Man; No Trust; I Got Mine. Encore: Everlasting Light; Till I Get My Way.

Keep reading:

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

Review – Arctic Monkeys

Review: Modest Mouse

Review: Vampire Weekend

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

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(Above: B.B. King and Buddy Guy jam on “Rock Me Baby” with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan at a recent Crossroads Festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few in the sold-out crowd that greeted B.B. King, the 84-year-old King of the Blues, at the Midland theater on Friday night expected the energy and vitality of King’s essential “Live at the Regal” album, released 45 years ago. It is also likely few expected the extensive banter that filled King’s 90 minutes onstage.

King’s set opened with a 10-minute vamp that allowed everyone in his eight-piece backing band the chance to solo. Once King took the stage, he proved he still had the chops and voice fans love. His excellent reading of the blues warhorse “Key to the Highway” melded nicely into King’s own “Blues Man.”

Another classic, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” was driven by a military cadence on the snare drum. When coupled with King’s four-piece horn arrangement, the song recalled a New Orleans funeral march. The band followed that number with a song King recorded with U2 back in the ‘80s. In their most upbeat performance of the night, the King and his band lit into “When Love Comes To Town” with surprising energy. Sadly, it was not to last.

From there King’s set was as much a monologue as it was a musical dialogue. Here are some of his best one-liners:
•    “You can look at me and tell I ain’t no Michael Phelps. I don’t smoke.”
•    After hitting a bum note on Lucille, his guitar: “I know I shouldn’t have let her go to the liquor store.”
•    After the audience response didn’t meet expectations: “I think you’re teasing me. You sound like Tiger Woods.”

As King’s chitchat neared the 20-minute mark, fans started to grow restless. Some shouted song requests; others just yelled “play something.” King apologized for not being able to play one of the requests, then continued rambling about Viagra and instructing men how to set the mood by playing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.”

After a bizarre musical riff on ED medications, King finally gave the crowd another song in the form of “Rock Me Baby.” The aborted performance led into King’s signature number, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Even then, King littered the song with asides and shout-outs to the sound men and lighting crew. When the throng realized they weren’t going to get another full performance, they started leaving en masse.

No one can fault King for growing old. He’s lived a rich life and brought joy to millions of people around the globe. Perhaps King feels he needs to stay onstage for so long to justify his high ticket price. If this is the case, he may be better off knocking a couple bucks off the ticket and cutting half of his horn section. (The quartet was only onstage half the time anyway.) While King’s onstage generosity is commendable, fans might be more appreciative of a shorter set loaded with music than the current drawn-out arrangement.

It would be unfair to label Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy the evening’s “opening act.” Guy just happened to go onstage first.

Listening to Guy is like hearing the history of electric blues on shuffle. Backed by a tight four-piece band, the 73-year-old guitarist tore through a 65-minute tribute to his heroes and contemporaries.

Guy teased out an abstract solo over the familiar opening chords of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a setting that was more Thelonious Monk than Muddy Waters, and took particular delight in delivering the song’s more racy lyrics. Guy’s tribute to his late friend and collaborator Junior Wells on “Hoodoo Man” was another high point.

The night’s signature moment started with Guy playing so quietly one could hear his amp buzzing over the P.A. As “Drowning on Dry Land” progressed, Guy eased his way off-stage and into the crowd. He nailed a long solo while walking nearly two-thirds of the way up the floor, and finished it plopped down in a surprised fan’s seat.

Before leaving the stage, Guy paid tribute to his friend and inspiration, B.B. King. Growing up in Louisiana, Guy said, there were no music shops, just stores that happened to have instruments in one corner. Before King’s records came out, inventory was priced to move. But after “Three O’Clock Blues,” guitars were suddenly harder to come by.

B.B. King setlist: I Need You So, Let the Good Times Roll, Key to the Highway>Blues Man, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, When Love Comes To Town, You Are My Sunshine, “ED Medication Blues,” Rock Me Baby, The Thrill Is Gone.

Buddy Guy setlist: Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar, Muddy Waters medley: Hoochie Coochie Man/She’s 19 Years Old/Love Her With A Feeling, Hoodoo Man, Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In, Drowning On Dry Land, Close to You, Boom Boom, Strange Brew, Voodoo Chile, Sunshine of Your Love.

Keep reading:

Review: Buddy Guy (2008)

Review: Buddy and Bettye at Roots N Blues N BBQ Fest 2008

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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(Above: Al Hibbler, who wrote “Unchained Melody,” attended school for the blind in Little Rock, Ark.)

By Joel Francis

At a recent concert in Fayetteville, Ark., jazz legend Sonny Rollins remarked at how happy he was to be playing Louis Jordan’s home state for the first time.

Arkansas has never been known as either cutting-edge or influential. Not even Bill Clinton could save Arkansas from being a backwoods punchline – it’s the West Virginia of the Midwest, for readers who are mystified by what lies west of Virginia – but it’s spawned an amazing number of influential musicians. There’s Johnny Cash, who was born in Kingsland and raised in Dyess, and his brother Tommy, of course. Legendary Band drummer Levon Helm, who hails from Marvell. Those are the ones everybody knows.

Incredibly, soul legend Al Green was born in Forrest City. One of Green’s influences, gospel/rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was born in Cotton Plant. Contemporary gospel star Smokie Norfull was originally from Pine Bluff. Delight brought us Glen Campbell, Colt was Charlie Rich’s first home and Conway Twitty was born Harold Jenkins in Helena. John Hughes, a pedal steel player who worked Twitty and numerous others, came from Elaine.

Louis Jordan (Brinkley) aside, the Natural State has also produced jazzman Joe Bishop from Monticello, who wrote the staple “Woodchopper’s Ball” and free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (Little Rock).

The state’s greatest legacy might be the amount of blues it birthed, including Luther Allison (Widener), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (Helena), Son Seals (Osceola), Jimmy Witherspoon (Gurdon), Roosevelt Sykes (Elmar) and Robert Jr. Lockwood (Helena). West Memphis was the first stop north for many blues players. Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Big Boy Crudup and B.B. King all stopped there for a while. Stax pillar Rufus Thomas was a longtime West Memphis radio host.

The name Jim Dickinson (Little Rock) may not be familiar, but his work with the Dixie Flyers, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Replacements, Mudhoney and the North Mississippi Allstars – which features his sons Luther and Cody – has been heard the world over.

On the pop side, founding Evanescence duo Amy Lee and Ben Moody are also both Little Rock Natives; R&B slickster Ne-Yo was born in Camden and Perryville begat Shawn Camp, who has written songs for Garth Brooks, George Strait and Brooks and Dunn.

Arkansas may be a forgotten state that ranks in 32nd in population and 29th in area, but if you can’t experience its Ozark Mountains in person, it’s at least worth a musical road trip.

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Above: Smithsonian patrons deserve a space to discover and learn more about American musicians like Big Bill Broonzy.

By Joel Francis

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s two-year, $85 million facelift is a lot like the plastic surgery aging stars get – it attracts a lot of interest at first and does a good job of hiding the wrinkles, but ultimately accentuates all the other flaws.

A visit to the renovated Washington, D.C. museum in the week after it re-opened to the public revealed Kool Herc’s turntable and Afrika Bambaataa’s pendant as the most prominent exhibits of 20th Century American music. There was no acknowledgement to the richness of the museum’s own music archives and label, Smithsonian Folkways.

The National Museum of American History needs a showcase dedicated to the legacy of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. A place for visitors to learn about its artists – not only better-known names like Pete Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly, but the anonymous rural musicians label founder Moses Asch sought to document.

Asch founded Folkways Records and Service Co. in 1948 to “suppor(t) cultural diversity and increase understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound,” Much like his contemporary and fellow musicologist Alan Lomax, Asch captured songs from primitive villages to New York City’s avant-garde, ancient Greek literature to Russian poetry.

The permanent space should include an interactive map where visitors can hear and learn about indigenous music styles in a given area, and see how those forms migrate and influence each other. They should also house several kiosks where listeners can listen to recordings while learning about the performers. Rotating exhibits of instruments, lyrics and other memorabilia would also enhance the space.

When the Smithsonian acquired Asch’s library after his death in 1987, they adopted his mission of document “the people’s music” as their own. They also guaranteed that all the label’s 2,000 releases would forever remain in print. One wouldn’t know this promise has been kept by visiting the museum’s gift stores.

In the old configuration, the main retail store on the bottom floor was a clearinghouse for the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Nearly every title and artist was at the shopper’s fingertips. All that remains today is a few compilations of blues, bluegrass, train and labor songs and the essential Woody Guthrie box set. Patrons deserve better than this. They deserve a place to flip over the rocks of American roots music and discover what lies underneath.

Addressing this need would not correct all the problems of the renovated museum. The public would have been better served had the curators waited until all their exhibit space was completed before re-opening.  More than a third of the building is still under construction and closed to the public. But the tapestry of American music the Smithsonian has preserved is too rich to be swept under the rug.

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By Joel Francis

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy is to the electric guitar what a match is to kerosene.

The 68-year-old blues legend lit into opening number “Best Damn Fool” like a house afire and closed out the Roots ‘n Blues ‘n BBQ Festival Saturday night in Columbia, Mo. with 90 minutes of barn-burning blues that skimmed through the encyclopedia of the genre.

After starting with a cut from his new album, “Skin Deep,” Guy tore through his classic “Hoodoo Man.” The song culminated with a guitar duel between Guy and his backing guitarist, who was more than capable of holding his own. After whipping the song into a frenzy, Guy put a finger to his lips and hushed both the crowd and his band. In whisper silence he noodled into “Love Her With a Feeling,” which merged with “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”

Guy’s mind is as frenetic as his fingers. He rarely plays a song all the way through, opting to mine the most joyous parts, then skip along to the next number that races through is brain. He treated the audience to a nearly two full minutes of his signature number “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” before remembering he played Peggy Lee’s “Fever” at his last gig in Columbia 15 years ago and gave them all of that instead. No one seemed to mind.

“Boom Boom,” a tribute to John Lee Hooker, suddenly inspired “Strange Brew” and a shout-out to Eric Clapton and Cream. Guy hopped offstage and wandered through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd a block deep and half a block wide to deliver “Drowning on Dry Land” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

Like a woman plied with one drink too many, Guy was able to coax things from his guitar beyond its natural limits. Armed with a cream-colored Fender Stratocaster instead of his trademark polka dot model, Guy hopped on a wah wah peddle to riff over the intro of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child” before launching into Muddy Water’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”

The night ended with “Out in the Woods,” a boast about taming wild beasts. It was a great closing number, but also slightly redundant – at this point, Guy no longer had to prove how bad he was.

Bettye LaVette

In a perfect world, Bettye LaVette would be enjoying the same kind of success Tina Turner receives today.

After 47 years in the business and five years into her renaissance, LaVette’s raspy voice – no doubt enhanced by years of working smoky dives – is informed and enhanced by the pain and frustration of her wilderness years.

Her performance of early songs like “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)” hint at the career that could have been. But Lavette is not bitter. She can deliver a line like “I’ve been bruised, hurt and cheated on/ but still they couldn’t break me” (from “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven”) with both honesty and a smile.

Clad in a sleeveless black shirt and tight black pants, LaVette swayed and strutted across the stage channeling every note from her band, completely invested in every lyric. She added a swagger to her reading of “Joy” that songwriter Lucinda Williams could only dream of. Likewise, she added a level of sensuality to Leonard Cohen’s “You Don’t Know Me At All” unheard in the original. The sashay of her hips to a sizzling guitar solo said more than any of the verses.

Two years ago, LaVette put on a breathtaking performance at the Folly Theater in Kansas City. She was even better in the open air in Columbia and her band was the difference. For the earlier date, LaVette was backed by musicians who, like her, had been catapulted from juke joints to concert halls. Unlike her, they were not ready for the spotlight. Her new, four-piece band was tighter, funkier and able to keep up. They added a wash of psychedelic soul to “Sleep to Dream” and a superb gospel feel to “Choices.”

LaVette closed her 75-minute set with a riveting a cappella performance of a Sinead O’Connor song that summed up her life today: “I have all that I requested/And I do not want what I haven’t got.”

Doyle Bramhall

Drummer Doyle Bramhall grew up playing with the Vaughan brothers, so it makes sense that his Texas blues oscillate between the smooth strut of Jimmie and the rough and rocky bluster of  Stevie Ray. Unfortunately, there’s not much in between.

His five-piece band could turn it up when needed, like on a spirited cover of “Keep A Knockin’,” but for the most part they were content to keep the meat in the smoker instead of taking it out and slathering on the sauce.

Bramhall’s hour-plus set ran through songs from his solo catalog like “Top Rank Boxing” and “Cryin'” and a couple numbers he wrote with Stevie Ray. Predictably, “Change It” and “The House Is A Rockin’,” which closed the set, drew the greatest cheers.

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Blues for Tourists and Purists

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Blues legend Taj Mahal put on a performance as grand as his namesake Friday night at Crossroads KC.

The Taj Mahal Trio opened with an instrumental that showcased Mahal’s tasty fretwork. Mahal may not win a notes-per-minute competition, but few musicians are as articulate on their instruments.

From there the trio delivered 90 minutes of great blues that was firmly rooted in the genre’s sharecropping/plantation origins, but wasn’t afraid to detour into world music and pop melodies. The result was an evening that pleased both the tourists and the purists.

The set started strongly with “Done Changed My Way of Thinking,” and “Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” which featured Mahal on a hollow body electric guitar. “Blues With a Feeling” found Mahal seated behind a keyboard and delivering part of the song in French. Mahal’s instrument of choice often played the dual role of both the seducer and the seduced, and he wasn’t afraid to sprinkle dirty old man jokes between numbers or moan in a rasp that recalled Howlin Wolf to make his point.

The highlights came when Mahal strapped on an acoustic guitar and performed, in succession, “Fishin’ Blues,” “Queen Bee” and “Corrina.” He said good night, but within a few minutes he started strumming “M’Banjo” and then led his rhythm section through a spirited “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond” and “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes,” a beautiful pop ballad that in an alternate world would have been a big hit.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the turnout. Crossroads was only a third full — about 700 people — and most of the crowd resembled the lot that used to turn up at the old Grand Emporium. Mahal deserved a wider audience, but those who were there knew they were lucky to be hearing a legend, still in his prime, do what he does best.

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Buckwheat Zydeco

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

After a 20-year estrangement, Stanley Dural Jr. is returning to his first love: the Hammond B-3 organ.
But fans of the man otherwise known as Buckwheat Zydeco needn’t worry. He has found a way to reconcile the differences between his main squeeze, the accordion, and the B3.
“When I was playing the accordion originally I had the organ onstage with me,” Dural said. “I had the tendency to run from the accordion to the organ, but it was cutting into my time with the accordion, so I took it off the stage.”
Dural will bring a road-size version of the B3 with him at Knucklehead’s Saloon on Wednesday, continuing a reunion that began when he used it on some tracks for his first studio album in eight years, “Jackpot!”
“If I was going to use it in the studio, it wouldn’t be fair to if people didn’t hear it on stage,” Dural said. “I’ve always had a keyboard but it was a simple one. I couldn’t fully express myself on it. Now I Can, and the fans are loving it.”
Dural’s B3 playing is featured on the album’s 18-minute trilogy, “Encore: Featuring Organic Buckwheat,” which includes a slow blues and a jazz tribute to Jimmy Smith. This might seem like a stretch from zydeco’s traditional territory, but from a man who has stretched the genre to include country, gospel, children’s music and rock, it’s just bringing it back home.
“I’m taking it to another level,” said Dural, who counts Eric Clapton, Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson and members of Los Lobos among his recorded collaborators. “I love rasta and Bob Marley so there’s a song called ‘Love and Happiness’ that’s all about unity that has a Jamaican reggae feel.”
Listeners may have to wait awhile to hear that song at home, though – it’s one of dozens of Dural’s new tracks that didn’t make it on the album.
“We cut near 30 songs, and I caught the blues trying to figure out what to put on and what to leave off (the album),” Dural said. “It was my worst nightmare.”
No one will have to wait 8 years for the next Buckwheat Zydeco studio album, though.
“I’m going to give this one a chance,” Dural said, “but please believe me there’s another one coming right behind it.”
Dural’s re-embrace of the B3 is a sort of homecoming. It’s the instrument he played as the founder of Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers, a 15-piece funk band that backed artists like Joe Tex, Solomon Burke and Bobby Bland in the early ‘70s and also precipitated his friendship with Eric Clapton in the mid-‘80s.
A jam session broke out after Buckwheat Zydeco’s set at the 25th anniversary party ofr Island Records, Dural’s label at the time. Spying a vacant B3, Dural’s manager asked if he wanted to play.
“I said not ‘yeah,’ but ‘hell yeah,’” Dural said. “There was an army of guitars and Eric was at the front of the stage, but somehow we got to trading licks. We kept going back and forth, and when we got done he walked to the back of the stage, put out his hand and said, ‘I’m Eric, who are you?’ I took his hand and said, ‘I’m Buckwheat.’ We hit it off.”
Clapton played the guitar solo on Buckwheat Zydeco’s 1987 remake of “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” and invited the band to open his 12-night stand at Royal Albert Hall in 1988.
“That was like a dream come true,” Dural said. “It was frightening, but it went over big time.”
If the concept of a zydeco band opening for a rock legend in one of London’s most hallowed music halls seems incongruous, consider Buckwheat Zydeco opening for U2 around the same time.
“If you think about U2 and Buckwheat, they don’t match. That’s a different audience,” Dural said. “But it worked.”
The major-label shakeups 10 years ago led Dural to start his own label, Tomorrow Recordings, which also handles younger talents. If he misses rubbing shoulders with other legends and playing large venues, Dural isn’t letting on.
“I feel like I’m in a place now where I’m opening a lot of doors,” Dural said. “It doesn’t matter where I perform as long as I see a smile on people’s faces.”

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