Last night (March 6), New York’s famed Apollo Theater hosted a diverse lineup of artists paying tribute to blues legend Robert Johnson. Johnson, whose music has been covered by Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band, The Faces, ZZ Top, and John Mellencamp to name a few, would have been 100 years old this year. The show was a benefit for the building of the Blues Hall of Fame by the Blues Foundation in Memphis.
The program put a spotlight on how diverse Johnson’s influence has been. Early on in the show two artists – bluesman Otis Taylor and rocker Todd Rundgren – performed back-to-back versions of “Kindhearted Woman Blues.” Taylor wielded a banjo, and did a country-blues take on the song. Rundgren followed, joking that the song was called “Blues From An iPad,” playing a full-on rock version. To the untrained ear, it might have seemed like two different songs.
About an hour later, Rundgren returned to the stage with another rocker, “Stop Breakin’ Down” (this time, joking that the crowd should also acknowledge the 100th birthday of the Oreo). Earlier in the evening, Elvis Costello (a last-minute addition to the lineup) sat on chair, crossed one leg over the other (a la Johnson on the cover of his Complete Recordings box set) and sang “From Four ‘Til Late” while fingerpicking his acoustic guitar.
But the act to get the biggest reaction from the audience was Living Colour, who brought heavy metal thunder to Johnson’s blues, reminding everyone that blues combined with loud guitars is still a potent blend. Their “Preaching Blues” got the first standing ovation of the night, and later on they collaborated with blues singer Shemekia Copeland on “Stop Breakin’ Down” and then with Sarah Dash (a former member of funk group Labelle and also Keith Richards‘ X-Pensive Winos) on “Little Queen Of Spades.” (Dash wasn’t the only musician there with a Stones connection: house drummer and musical director Steve Jordan was also in the X-Pensive Winos and Sugar Blue, also in the house band, played harmonica on The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”).
Other highlights from the night included New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint‘s piano-driven version of “Cross Road Blues,” The Roots‘ take on “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” (featuring lead vocals from their guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas), actor Jeffrey Wright (who played Muddy Waters in the film Cadillac Records) with blues singer keb’mo doing “Stones In My Passway,” Macy Gray‘s take on “Come On In My Kitchen,” Bettye Lavette with Taj Majal on “When You Got A Good Friend” and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) doing “Sweet Home Chicago”.
Robert Johnson was the bluesman who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent, alluded to in the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” and his songs “Crossroads” and “Me and the Devil Blues”.