Blues greats delivers fitting tribute to Robert Johnson

A review of Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concert at the Berklee Performance Center on February 20, 2011

, Contributing Writer

Robert Johnson would turn 100 this May if he were still alive. As it is, he didn’t get very close, dying at age 27 possibly by poisoning (although it’s never been proven). He was a man who lived a very short, mysterious life, but left behind a tremendous legacy as much for his influence on electric blues and rock and roll as for his Delta folk-blues.

It’s fitting then, that a tribute concert in honor of Johnson would cover the bases by covering an eclectic mix of hard rocking electric blues with the more traditional Delta acoustic blues of Robert Johnson’s day. The tour, dubbed “Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concert”, is anchored by blues legend David “Honeyboy” Edwards and rockers Big Head Todd and The Monsters, along with Lightnin’ Malcolm, Cedric Benson, Hubert Sumlin and Johnson’s grandson Steven Johnson. On Friday, the tour stopped in Boston for an entertaining night at the Berklee Performance Center.

The show opened with Big Head Todd and The Monsters roaring through Johnson classics such as “Kind Hearted Woman” and “Come on in My Kitchen”. It was evident watching why Johnson became such a big influence for the British blues musicians of the 60s; beyond his tremendous songwriting, his trademark jagged, rhythmic approach to guitar playing, translates well into the riff-heavy electric blues favored by guitarists like Eric Clapton. Once Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Benson took to the stage, the show really took off, hitting a nice balance between improvisation and trading solos, while still maintaining a focus on the core of Johnson’s songs. Benson’s drumming especially, a mixture of rock stomp and country shuffle, gave a real driving groove to each song, and his drum breakdown on “Ramblin’ on my Mind” was a highlight of the evening.

Another highlight came on Lightnin’ Malcolm’s bottleneck slide rendition of “Travelling Riverside Blues”. With the slightest touch from Benson on the drums, Malcolm’s smooth playing and strong voice gave the song a rich feel. Even stronger, was Steven Johnson’s voice, a booming, almost gospel-tinged roar that carried “Milkcow Calf’s Blues” and a few others during the middle of the show. He seemed to delighted just to be out there and at the close of the show, declared that having never met his grandfather, being able to play with other Delta blues musicians was his connection to him.

The second half of the show featured the living legends David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin. Edwards, who came out first, won a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Grammy Awards. He opened with “Sweet Home Chicago”, showing a fine voice for a man at the age of 95-years. From there, the show hit a bit of a rough patch due to Edward’s continually out of tune guitar. It’s unfortunate that a man who’s been touring and playing for 70 years would have to endure such a snag. Sumlin joined Edwards after a few songs, playing the old Delta classic “Sitting on Top of the World” with Sumlin singing and showing some his chops that earned him a spot on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list. Both men got standing ovations as they left the stage, well earned for their place in the history of the blues.

For the encore, everyone came back out on stage and played Johnson’s best known and most often covered song, “Crossroad Blues”. It was a great ending to almost two hours of blues that served a a fitting tribute to the enduring legacy of Robert Johnson and his timeless music.

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