Blues, Blooz & Blews

Les Paul’s absence due to illness deflates 90th birthday tribute


By the time the abbreviated tribute to Les Paul at the Gibson Amphitheatre on Tuesday, February 7, clattered to a stop, most of the audience wore the same expression. There’s a very specific look the human face carries when its owner has been robbed, insulted, and aesthetically abused; rather like schoolteachers at an Adam Sandler movie or Democrats who wrote “John Kerry 2004” on a check. You now see much more of this visage than in former times, but it has always been one of rock ‘n roll’s tribal masks.

The idea that boomer musicians would want to pay public honors to the 90-year-old inventor of the Gibson Les Paul (the guitar that out-shouted God) is one of those naturals no one thinks about, lest the very bedrock of human gratitude crumble. The honoree was hospitalized on Friday with fluid in his lungs (his condition was improving at press time), but the tribute went on without him. So an undersized cadre of scene vets, old-timers, and demi-professionals turned out for a comfortable sprawl with family and friends. The slapped backs were many, as were overheard stories of the time Charley got drunk and naked at a Van Halen show back in 1984, or was it ’88? Or was it Judas Priest?

The show was to be filmed, and some obsequious type from Gib Amp took the stage to plead for all the boots, bellies, and generously cantilevered boobs to skinch-up together in the orchestra seats for the camera. That done with good-natured grumbling, a 15-minute delay was announced. About 30 minutes later came preliminaries. A video clip of the ailing Les expressing regrets got glitched into inaudibility. Proceeds for the gig were to go to A Place Called Home, the well-known South Central charity for at-risk youth. Some of the kids themselves were trotted on as a reminder that anything they might endure that evening was for their sake. The crowd applauded dubiously, smelling a bummer.

Chris Carter (KLSX-FM’s Breakfast with the Beatles DJ and ex-Dramarama) announced the arrival of blues legend Hubert Sumlin (guitarist on many a Howlin’ Wolf side for Chess) and ex-actor Steven Seagal. The Man with the Yard-Wide Jaw toted a guitar and lisped fetchingly through a jackhammer cover of “Barbecue.” His between-song patter was an action-movie star’s idea of how a Chicago bluesman might talk through the handicap of a clogged glottal, lending welcome comedy to lines like “I wrote this song with Bo Diddley.”

This was, as GWB might put it, scarcely auspicatory. Then ensued a stumblefuck relay of sets from the likes of Slash, Allison Krauss, Neal Schon (of Journey), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Switchfoot, and Steves Lukather and Porcaro (from Toto), all doing brute injustice to durable genre. Schon redeemed himself a measure by having his axe howled down by the deliciously cooz-o-licious wail of R&B diva Shayna Steele. Session guitar master Robben Ford did a rousing “You’re Gonna Be Sorry,” replete with the shivery, snaky tension of the best old Chicago laments. Extended treats of Edgar Winter’s throaty warble reminded everyone of why his one hit was an instrumental. Joe Satriani provided the evening’s one moment of retro-arena flash, slamming in one boogie piledriver after another in a manner that was all the shout a very long time ago. He rang that high, dirty note of pleasure, excess, freedom, that last American high that was the crowning shuck of ’80s hesher rock. The crowd rewarded Joe’s quarter-hour of hairspray Proust with prolonged standing and cheering.

That sustained me through the dull and raucous double act of Buddy Guy and Joe Perry, over the non-appearance of Merle Haggard, and all the way down the hill to Lankershim Boulevard. The clutch of industry peeps walking with me cursed charity and compassion, Ticketmaster and God in excited, happy voices. That, too, was nostalgia, and milked to the last drop.

first published in L.A. CITY BEAT 2-9-06

c) 2006 by Ron Garmon

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