Bishop, Pawns and Kings of the Blues

The Doheny Blues Fest showcases a seldom heard scene

Good-time bluesman (yes, such an entity doesexist) ElvinBishophasn't been in the headlines for five years. The last time the mainstream music media deemed our man newsworthy, it was because Bishop's daughter Selina; ex-wife Jennifer Villarin; and Villarin's boyfriend, James Gamble, were all brutally murdered and hacked to bits by Selina's boyfriend, whacko cult leader/serial killer Glenn Helzer. So much for the fuckin' bontonroulet,eh?

It was only a matter of weeks after the murders that I found myself interviewing Bishop, then on tour in support of That'sMyPartner,a belated duet album with his early mentor, Little Smokey Smothers, that was released only days after the killing spree. I wondered at the time how fun-lovin' Elvin could bullshit his way through the inconceivable pain and grief to not only perform but also actually communicate sanely and civilly with media ghouls like me. I abandoned my reporterly duties that day and opted out of asking Bishop to discuss the tragedy, focusing instead on his 30-plus-year career, which included a brief stint as an actual rock star; this was the least I could do for a man whose music has graced my existence with more juke-joint-jumpin' joy than any white bluesman not surnamed Allman, Winter or Clapton.

Bishop first surfaced in the late '60s as a member of the pioneering Paul Butterfield Blues Band, where he labored in the massive shadow cast by the late Michael Bloomfield—certainly a superb guitarist in his own right, not to mention a figure already famed for his work as a Dylan sideman, but one I've always maintained was actually the inferior musician to the far-less-celebrated Bishop. Where Bloomfield was clearly the sum of his influences, as were/are most blues players of the Caucasian persuasion (Freddie and Albert King in Bloomfield's instance), Bishop emerged early on with a sound and style distinctly and undeniably his own. Sweet, fat, saxophonic tones, unusually melodic/musical phrasing/improvisation and a noteworthy deficit of recycled blues clichés hallmarked Bishop's work. His "Pigboy Crabshaw" alter ego—sort of an inebriate, cackling, farm-boy character—also gave Bishop a distinctive and endearing stage persona.

When Bishop went solo in 1968, it became apparent his vocal and songwriting prowess wasn't yet in pace with his guitar skill, although his reckless showmanship set Bishop apart from his peers. He finally fell into a groove with the 1974 release of LetItFlow,on which Bishop's myriad influences—blues, hillbilly, R&B, funk, and gospel blended with his patented hayseed humor—flawlessly coalesced into something equally brilliant and idiosyncratic on tunes such as the goofy, country-tinged "Fishin'," the SanfordandSon-ized"Stealin' Watermelons," and the fiery, Allman-esque southern rocker "Travelin' Shoes." The album remains perhaps Bishop's finest hour.

Still, Bishop's voice—a hoarse, raspy, sometimes off-pitch yowl—remained problematic in netting airplay and mass acceptance. Hellish '70s-music fixture Mickey Thomas, later of Starship, was added to Bishop's group as co-lead vocalist, and the Thomas-crooned "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" soared to No. 3 on the pop charts in 1975. The country/blues ballad, highlighted by a particularly sweet Bishop guitar solo that was criminally (if predictably) edited for the single release, remains the tune Bishop will always be most remembered for.

This was the commercial (if not artistic) peak of Bishop's career, as he and most of his generation were buried by the incoming punk movement of the '70s. Pigboy fell off the map until resurfacing on blues-purist label Alligator Records in 1988, where he's remained under the radar ever since, seemingly trying to negotiate a truce between the stick-up-the-ass pieties of the contemporary-blues scene and the raucous, beer-marinated, anything-goes sensibility of his heyday.

There hasn't been a new Bishop album in the five years since his daughter's murder, but it's heartening to see him back at work; Crabshaw rises Sunday afternoon at the Eighth Annual Doheny Blues Festival. Here I must add that the indignity of Elvin Bishop (not to mention SolomonBurke)being billed beneath Kenny Wayne Shepherd is enough to make me wanna consign the responsible parties to a month of having a sun-ripened Jim Belushi sit on their collective face.

* * *

Other fave acts booked at Doheny this weekend include the aforementioned SolomonBurke,among the few soul-music giants of the '60s still active today. Burke took many old-time fans by surprise with his 2002 comeback album, Don'tGiveUponMe,an unexpectedly laid-back, oddly country/folk-tinged album with an easy, front-porch sensibility. That CD received enough ink that Burke has re-graduated to the big leagues with a new Sony release, featuring (former?) big shot Don Was handling production chores. As much as I enjoyed his prior effort, Burke's MakeDowithWhatYouGotleaves it choking in the dust. Here's the King Solomon we know and love: histrionic, theatrical, testifying like a demented street-corner evangelist, and in far better voice than a 65-year-old, oil-fed fat guy has any right to be. Burke interprets several familiar tunes and makes them his own in the process, from a take on the Stones' "I Got the Blues" that must have Mick cowering in humiliation somewhere, to a chicken-scratch funk reworking of Dylan's "What Good Am I," to a fire-breathing account of the Band's "It Makes No Difference" that finally realizes the tune's potential as a classic spiritual to sit alongside "The Weight," to, finally, the album-closing adaptation of Hank Williams' "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul," which forever fuses the common sensibility of black and white gospel music.

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