Fence Offense!


Somehow, we doubt that the several thousand people who bought tickets to the second day of this 24-years-strong annual fete ever expected to labor through two live renditions of the '70s hit "You Are So Beautiful." Never expected to hear such maudlin excess as INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart," or that '80s anthem "Up Where We Belong." Certainly not at a "blues" festival. But that's what happens, we guess, when you've got Joe Cocker—who's about as blues as the Blues Brothers—on the bill.

Actually, guitarist Joe Louis Walker was about the only true blues act of the day, with everyone else falling into pop, soul or R&B genres—not inherently a bad thing (and the Lord would surely strike us down if we dared scribble a bad word about the day's headliner, the Reverend Al Green), but we'd prefer a little fidelity to advertising.

Far more egregious, though, was the fest's continued practice of blatant classism. Once again, the immediate 30 yards in front of the stage was given over to people who donated big bucks to KKJZ-FM, the public radio station that stages the fest each year. The rest had to make camp behind a knee-high fence—a Berlin Wall of Blues—the gaps between the haves and have-nots guarded by uniformed security. Unless you arrived really early, the best view afforded blues peons was on video screens at either side of the stage.

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For all of MC Doug MacLeod's talk during the day—about how great it is that people of all races and colors can gather together peacefully for an afternoon of music, and how music is a powerful, unifying force—he ignored the barrier down front that split the audience into two economic classes. Yeah, we know that all the money put up by the deeper-pocketed goes to support KKJZ, and god knows we're absolutely for giving gobs of cash to listener-supported public radio, but there's got to be a better way to reward the station's benefactors than erecting a fence. Why not just let the big donors in before everyone else, and let the people police grass space themselves?

Speaking of police, we found it interesting that Billy Preston, who's had a slew of run-ins with the law of late—child annoyance, insurance fraud and coke possession among them—wound up on the bill, but, hey, a guy's got to make a paycheck. Preston's only crime here was singing "You Are So Beautiful" (he wrote it; Cocker made it a hit). We chose to tune out momentarily, coming to during his instrumental jam "Outta Space," and his passable token-blues take on "Hoochie Coochie Man." Otherwise, Preston spent his time babbling about God—that's how Billy rewards his greatest benefactor.

Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas could sing math textbooks and make them sound sultry and beautiful. Sticking close to ballads—all the better to show off her fabulous, creamy pipes—she crooned about cheating men and no-good women who steal men away from their girlfriends. And she looked amazing, too—Irma's been singing for almost 50 years, but she came off like a spry 19-year-old. Could've done without the Tina Turner song, but we appreciated her original rendition of "Time Is on My Side," a statement the Rolling Stones continually disprove whenever they tackle it.

Joe Louis Walker was surprisingly dull, noodling his way around a Gibson electric and offering little for us—or for the guy in front who whipped out his copy of BusinessWeek—to get excited about. His set consisted mostly of run-throughs of every overly familiar blues riff imaginable, with little added color or detail. And, really, there are only so many variants of duh-DUH-duh-dah out there. We opted to get up and walk around, and were far more enthralled by the Governor Howard Dean info booth and the cooking-demonstration guy who seductively inserted vegetables through a grinder.

Despite his lousy cover choices and history of bland pop tunes, we didn't totally hate Joe Cocker. We continue to find something endearing about a guy who can eke out a living singing other people's songs in a voice that sounds like he's squeezing a barrel cactus out his anus. When you expect him to be good, he is, like with Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." But when he did the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" reggae-style, it was time for us to hit the food booths.

After an inexcusable hour-plus wait, Al Green finally materialized in a snappy white suit, clutching red roses and singing the praises of God and love and peace and happiness, dancing around the stage, dropping to his knees and getting down like the Holy Roller Memphis preacher he is on any other Sunday. Someday when we're old and senile, we hope we remember how we once heard the Rev sing "Let's Stay Together," and what an amazing religious experience it truly was.

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