Robert Johnson at 100 at the Apollo Theater
The music and the mythology kept an unsteady covenant throughout Robert Johnson at 100" at the Apollo Theater on Tuesday night.
Late in the going there came a succinct embodiment of that tension in two versions of Hellhound on My Trail," one of the most venerated tunes of Johnson, the Delta bluesman. The first take was by Taj Mahal, singing in his gruff, lean voice with a finger-picked acoustic guitar. It was an authoritative performance, evenhanded and self-contained.
Then came James Blood Ulmer's version, in a murkier vein and with a host of extra-musical connotations. Over the gluey drone of his electric guitar, he moaned and murmured like a conjurer; his cadence was free-associative, and the concert's house band, in which he'd been playing all night, didn't seem to know how to follow it. If there hadn't already been several invocations of Johnson's Faustian dealall that stuff about selling his soul to the devil at the crossroadsMr. Ulmer would have called it into play. Todd Rundgren, who went up next, declared himself thoroughly unnerved.
Robert Johnson at 100" delivered just a few moments like Mr. Ulmer's, and more than a few like Taj Mahal's. And that was probably a good thing. The concert, a benefit for the Blues Foundation, with proceeds supporting a building fund for its Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, could have succumbed to corny maxims about the mortal wages of the blues. A narration by Joe Morton, one of the show's producers, sometimes came perilously close. (The other producers were Steve Berkowitz, Michael Dorf and Patricia Watt.)
What the concert served up instead was a stout homage to Johnson's small but influential body of work. The pace was brisk, with artists shuffling on and off the stage, most of them more than once. And the band, led by the drummer Steve Jordan, played with aplomb.
Any concert with such a strong idiomatic thrust ends up leaning on its native speakers. So the evening's blues artists yielded some of its sturdier highlights, as when Taj Mahal paired up with Bettye LaVette for a growly romp through When You Got a Good Friend." Later Ms. LaVette demolished I'm a Steady Rollin' Man," changing the song's gender perspective so that it landed like an empowerment anthem. Shemekia Copeland, backed by Living Colour, did something similar with Stop Breakin' Down Blues." And Keb' Mo,' working with a more compressed energy, brought terse elegance to Cross Road Blues" and the right sort of muted dejection to Love in Vain Blues."
The Baby Boomer rock constituencya crucial consideration wherever two or more are gathered in Johnson's nameheld up its end of the bargain, though there was nary a sign of Eric Clapton or Keith Richards. Filling an analogous role was Mr. Rundgren, who recently released a perfectly titled tribute album, Todd Rundgren's Johnson" (MPCA); he offered his roadhouse-shuffle version of Kindhearted Woman." Elvis Costello took a different tack, paring down to acoustic guitar and percussion for a leisurely, conversational From Four Until Late," drawing his listeners toward him.