John Lee Hooker, Jr. in Essen, Germany
“ "The blues have been around the USA forever but it's still new here,' observed Hooker, 'Even if the Americans drop it, Europeans will pick it back up. They won't let it die.' ”
John Lee Hooker, Jr.
March 29, 2009
John Lee Hooker, Jr. brought his slick, blues-based revue to a small corner of the Rhineland and proved that a true artist knows no boundaries. The son also rises,indeed.
The location had to be among the most out-of-the-way venues ever played by a recent Grammy nominee, but the place did have a lot of cement soul, and this part of Essen doesn't look much different than inner suburban areas of Hooker's nurturing groundslike Detroit or the SF Bay area. Prior to the show, there was more activity around an India-based wedding reception in a larger section of the building complex.
Credit should go to promoter Wolfgang Stolt and his crack technical team for transforming a former factory room into a prime club-type scene. Hooker scooped up the showman's baton and sprinted through a glorious roadhouse run. After initial apprehension, I was very pleasantly surprised by how well this concert turned out.
Hooker's two-part showcase began with strong material from his latest release, All Odds Against Me (CC/Copycats, 2008). The three-punch combination of "People Want a Change," "Extra Marital Affair" and "Dear John" set the tone for a very entertaining evening.
"My connection with the audience comes as soon as I say hello," mused Hooker. "Our first three songs are segues. You give the audience a spoonful. After that you've made your statement."
If you stroll along Beale Street in Memphis on a good night, there's a wide range of blues history played out. Hooker and his tight ensemble used that old Southern recipe to deliver a potent package, offering various styles in a mix that tributed everyone from icons like Hooker's father and Jimmy Reed to BB King and Lou Rawls.
German audiences are generally more reserved than those I've seen in other parts of Europe, or especially the United States. Slowly but surely, Hooker pulled them into his call and response, hand-clapping groove with a well-balanced mix of originals and standards that included "Walking the Dog" and "Got My Mojo Working."
"I don't go out to prove anything, but we try and give them what they want," reflected Hooker. "We're funny, and we get personal to create a party atmosphere for the global family that keeps inviting us back."
Hooker's sidekick, guitarist Jeff Horan, hit some short and sweet, Claptonesque wah-wah accents, while longtime drummer Mike Rogers pounded away like a muscular Buddy Miles. James "Gig" Anderson on keys and bassist "Funky Z" rounded out the precision backing.
"I depend on these extraordinary guys," said Hooker,"We look in each other's eyes and read off each other to communicate for a certain sound like a magnet on stage."
The combination clicked, and by intermission most of the balcony was in motion with even the barmaids dancing along. Hooker, in a silky metallic blue shirt, had the fans where he wanted them as he grinned and wiggle-flexed his pectorals. I was told 600 tickets were sold, but the crowd looked smaller, though they partied enough for a larger hall.
By the time Hooker rounded the final stretch of his two-hour plus extravaganza, he'd provided the swinging swarm with a time capsule of his genre. The song "There's a Struggle," with a shout out to BB King ("I don't mind losing a Grammy to someone like him")exemplified Hooker's soulful take on gutbucket tradition.
After expanding his personal catalogue of recent rockers like "I've Got Your Back" into more familiar textbook territory like "Rock Me," Hooker provided a master class in classics that ranged from Willie Dixon to James Brown and proved that in addition to his surname, Hooker shares a kinship with a pantheon of prime performers. By the throbbing climax of the closing "Wang Dang Doodle," Hooker had the entire Essen crowd standing and responding to every call with glee.
"The blues have been around the USA forever but it's still new here," observed Hooker, "Even if the Americans drop it, Europeans will pick it back up. They won't let it die."
As long as there are engaging ambassadors like Hooker, the blues will remain a vital force, thriving or not.
Perhaps if there was a little more Jukebox justice, Hooker would secure a lucrative, long-term Vegas style showroom engagement like those bestowed upon Celine Dion and Elton John. Pure blues may not enjoy the same marketplace as mainstream pop, but Hooker's polished set told me he would be perfect for an extended gig at some glittering destination like the House of Blues Foundation Room atop Mandalay Bay.
How much artistic fairness there is in the world of the bluesman isn't for me to judge. Hooker put on one hell of a show in a limited venue, and made a lot of German friends. You shouldn't have to sell your soul for that, and it would be nice if the rewards were more in line with the offering.