At the Mercy of Percy!

Sledge, Berry, Diddley and other blues greats scare horses, terrify children, create mayhem

I just about laid an egg when I looked at the lineup for this year's LONG BEACH BLUES FESTIVAL because this year's roster is among the best and most thoughtful served up yet. This is saying much; the Long Beach fest has long been the undisputed champion in an area rife with such blues-er-iffic festivities. The event lasts two glorious days over the coming weekend, and Saturday's bill is highlighted by CHUCK BERRY and BO DIDDLEY—playing together on the same stage, no less! I'm sure that somewhere back in time, this clash of the titans occurred, but damned if I've ever seen it happen or even heard about it. I view it as something akin to Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron competing in the same batting cage. Both old gents, of course, are founding fathers of rock & roll, but their methods and contributions are wildly divergent.

On top of creating the two-string template for rock & roll guitar, Berry was the genre's first great lyricist, the first guy who wrote songs directly addressing the concerns of leather-jacketed teenagers. Rather than indulging in the same, tired "please hear my plea under the moon in June" wordsmithery, Berry wrote tunes about racing souped-up hot rods, hating your high school teacher and classical music, and the wonders of boning at 16. He was a color-barrier-shattering pied piper in the 1950s, and by the end of the decade—at the age of 34—he'd become the music's elder statesman, a spokesman for nascent youth culture.

Diddley, meanwhile, was a blues primitive on the order of Muddy Waters, but his thunderous hambone beat, dizzying guitar tremolo and raw sexual braggadocio somehow struck a chord with kiddies of all colors. Diddley was also a master at playing the dozens, indulging in uproarious, spontaneous put-downs in songs like "Say Man" and "Say Man, Back Again" and on an entire album of verbal one-upmanship called Super Blues, recorded in 1968 with his Chess label mates Waters and Little Walter.

Both men are notoriously proud, cranky and difficult, and no matter their long history, the natural assumption is they'll endeavor to dominate each other like a couple of old lions vying for the right to boink young lionesses, bringing out the best in both. The proceedings will doubtless become heated, bawdy and most wonderful.

Saturday's lineup also features guitar gods JIMMIE VAUGHAN and GUITAR SHORTY, modern blues organist LUCKY PETERSON (who scored his first hit record at the age of six!), the imperial blues vocalist KOKO TAYLOR, and local harp hero JAMES HARMAN.

The theme of Sunday's presentation is soul music, thank God y'all, and fans will be regaled by the emotional vocal gymnastics of BOBBY "BLUE" BLAND, LITTLE MILTON, PERCY SLEDGE, SOLOMON BURKE and DENISE LASALLE. The big surprise here for me is Sledge, whom I've never seen listed performing in SoCal and assumed was retired. Heart-rending balladry is the at the mercy of Percy, whose big hit was "When a Man Loves a Woman," perhaps one of the Top 10 most overplayed songs in the history of the world, if deservedly so. But Sledge is no one-trick pony even if he's best remembered for that one tune: similar fare such as "It Tears Me Up," "Take Time to Know Her" and "The Dark End of the Street" made him a fave on the so-called "chitlin' circuit" back in the day.

The similarly romantic-minded Bland has long been another fave, and at age 71, with a build like Chris Farley and a face like a frying pan, he remains a figure of towering sensuality to big, fat African-American grandmothers through regular touring and predictably superb releases on the tiny, funky-assed, Mississippi-based Malaco Records. The other great thing about Bland is that over the years, his gospel-inflected scream has been reduced to a disturbing, phlegmy rasp that sounds like he's being garroted by Luca Brasi. Many people make sport of this sound, but let me ask you this: Can you make a noise like that? I didn't think so.

This week, the JEFFERSON STARSHIP also lands in town, but lest you think I've lost my mind by pointing this out, be advised that this version has nothing to do with the abomination that produced the time bomb "We Built This City." The history of Jefferson Airplane/Starship is so long and tangled that it's pointless to try and detail all the musical and personnel changes here; suffice it to say that the current permutation is led by revolutionary brain trust PAUL KANTNER (who is reportedly every bit as embarrassed as the rest of us by "We Built This City") and that embarrassing Grace Slick hasn't been part of the group for many, many years. I've always been a big fan of Kantner for his cynical honesty (he once told me he thought even his best albums basically sucked), his old-school counterculture politics (he once told me he likened Newt Gingrich to a nun attempting to prevent a 13-year-old from masturbating), his bizarre sci-fi obsessions (he once told me he was fascinated by the concept of fucking in zero gravity), and his continually great songs that somehow pull all his concepts and fixations together. Please don't hold all those wretched old Kantner-free Starship records against him; that'd be like blaming Bob Dornan on Larry Agran.

The 22nd annual Long Beach Blues Festival at Cal State Long Beach, 1288 N. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-1686. Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m. Call for ticket prices and packages available. All ages; Jefferson Starship perform at the Cerritos Center for Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8501. Thurs.-Fri., Sept. 6-7, 8 p.m. $25-$35. All ages.
 
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