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Jumping at the 'Crossroads'

Tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf at Segerstrom lets tunes tell an epic story.

March 14, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Blues legend James Cotton takes a breath during applause after playing Howlin Wolf's "Spoonful" during “Blues at the Crossroads Two" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Wednesday night.
Blues legend James Cotton takes a breath during applause… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

When Jody Williams took the stage Wednesday night at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, he didn't dive into a rendition of the blues standard "Don't Start Me to Talkin'." But it might have been appropriate.

The 78-year-old Williams, a longtime guitarist for Howlin' Wolf, walked in slowly from stage right after Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson introduced him. A stagehand set a chair down, and then Williams sat down and began playing. Period. Over the course of four numbers — an instrumental, two Wolf tunes and an encore — Williams played soulful, blistering guitar and uttered just a pair of terse "thank yous," which fell silent without a microphone.

The show, titled "Blues at the Crossroads Two," paid tribute to Wolf and another blues pioneer, Muddy Waters, and the musicians on stage must have had plenty of stories to tell about them. James Cotton, the other veteran who came on in the second half, played for years in Waters' band, and nearly all the younger performers crossed paths with them at some point.

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Given the show's lineup and theme, it was easy to imagine reminiscences ("One night in Chicago, Muddy taught me this riff ...") fighting for stage time with the music. But at Segerstrom, the focus held squarely on the latter, with Waters and Wolf mentioned only in brief asides and "Spoonful," "Got My Mojo Workin'" and other classics telling most of the story.

That was a story, of course, that began in cities much less affluent than Costa Mesa and venues much shabbier than Segerstrom, and at times Wednesday, the setting felt almost incongruous. Frank Sinatra was once quoted as saying that for all his riches and fame, he still considered himself a saloon singer, and likewise, the songs popularized by Wolf, Waters and their peers remain very much at home in saloons, roadhouses and musty dives.

Evidently, the performers at Segerstrom — who also included Bob Margolin, Tinsley Ellis and the Thunderbirds — were in that informal spirit. Far from a wistful retrospective, the show played as a joyous romp through decades of blues history, as the performers joshed, laughed and occasionally split into duos or trios to play stripped-down numbers. At times, all the evening lacked was a neon Michelob sign on the wall and a tip jar at the front of the stage.

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