An elder of the blues takes center stage in Oroville
“Shoppin’ for my tombstone … tired of livin', Lord have mercy."—John Lee Hooker, May 25, 2001
Twice in the past month, Gold Country Casino has hosted musical legends over the age of 70, first Ray Charles a few weeks ago, then John Lee Hooker last weekend. These are defining artists who left an indelible mark on popular music of the last century and are still out there touring and performing when most people their age are probably asleep or watching Wheel of Fortune.
Born on Aug. 22, 1917, in Clarksdale, Miss., Hooker is one of the giant figures who created the blues as we know it. Taught by his musician stepfather, he learned to play from watching people like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton, who often stopped by his house—until he ran away to Memphis at age 14 and began playing in various bands on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit.”
Around 1948, Hooker was pushing a broom in a Ford shop in Detroit, when his first recording, “Boogie Chillen,” became an overnight success. This would start a long recording career during which he generated a lot of money for his record companies but was not compensated fairly himself, as happened to so many black artists of the past. He had helped create a rollicking, r&b style of blues (embodied by his classic hit, “Boom Boom,” featured briefly in the movie Blues Brothers) that was part good-time music and part spiritual confessional—a hard-edged blues with roots in the gospel. Hooker forged his style into a sweatshop ceremony for the avant coffeehouses, using an open guitar tuning, the ebb and flow of repetition and his hypnotic, bluer-than-blue baritone voice.
History aside, it was a joy to see the man live, though now a gaunt and haggard 83 years old, as he was led to his chair amid a standing ovation from the 600 or so blues fans in attendance. With his shades on and a slick brown suit and white hat, Hooker still looked the part, and his performance was a lesson in endurance with a few spine-tingling moments that made his legendary status well understood.
The Coast to Coast Blues Band (which accompanies him) began the headlining set with four or five upbeat numbers featuring a robust, red-headed female singer named Juice Garcia and another newcomer, Archie Lee Hooker, nephew of the great bluesman, a vocalist who stomped around in a green suit, trying to hype the crowd like a preacher. When it was finally the senior Hooker’s time to join in, the whole crowd fell silent.
Hooker’s obviously wracked by age, and his long fingers could now barely slap and scratch at the strings of his guitar, but his voice held the crowd in awe. His guitar playing was in free time, a sort of distorted accompaniment used in counterpoint to the steady blues backbone offered by his band. But it was his deep voice and the way that he delivered his lines that sent shivers.
Each song (I didn’t know the names of many) tended to dissolve into the next because they were fairly similar, with Hooker mumbling repetitions that, at the best moments, captured some of the intense meditations of his past. Phrases like “have mercy on my soul” or “I feel so bad” took on new meaning with his weary voice, the deep repetition of “you, you, you” tying together lines delivered in stream-of-consciousness fashion.
The most poignant moment came during “Tombstone Blues,” when Hooker repeated the phrase, “tired of livin’ … just wanna lay down and die.” As the band droned a one-chord progression beneath his slow chant, I remember thinking that it couldn’t get much bluer than this. With the room dark and quiet, it was like sitting around a trashcan fire somewhere, listening to a man far away in his mind, rumbling with visions of the grave.
After five or six numbers, Hooker stood up and walked gingerly around stage, trying to exhort the relatively calm crowd during the final rockin’ blues number (even screaming into the mic with all his power). Many people began walking out after he left stage, while his back-up band kept playing. At his age and deteriorated health, Hooker had amazed everyone by still traveling and singing the blues, and as his shrill final cry reminded us, this was a man who is not going gently into any good night.
Opening bands for the long show provided youthful energy early on. Bay Area favorite Tommy Castro showed off technical prowess on his black Fender Strat, stroking the crowd with call and response and prowling around stage in his black-leather Jim Morrison pants. But it was Booker T. Jones (of the famous MGs) who gave the night’s most consistently memorable set, performing a number of unforgettable classics from his repertoire.
The Memphis, Tenn., native, a handsome man who slightly resembles actor Sidney Poitier, opened with “Baby, What I Say?” backed by a tight four-piece. That was followed by a solid cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and a beautiful version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” which Jones sang in a lower key using his soulful, honey-warm vocals. After “Born Under a Bad Sign,” a classic he co-penned for Albert King, Jones switched from keyboards to the more organic-sounding Hammond organ (his classic sound), and ignited the crowd with the famous 1962 hit, “Green Onions"—truly a joy to hear live—as well as my favorite, “Hip-Hug Her,” a tight groove made popular for younger generations by the movie Barfly and the Duffy’s jukebox. Other highlights included a smooth version of the classic Bill Withers tune, “Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone),” featuring the same even-keeled harmony that marked that entire set.
There were two formidable legends on stage tonight, two men with different styles but a fundamental love and understanding for music that helped them endure and made them appreciated by several generations. After three separate 75-minute blues sets, one left feeling fairly satisfied, witness to authentic American music as varied in its roots as the country itself.