According to a tall tale, legendary guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a great musician. There’s no real proof of this Faustian legend save for Johnson’s immense talent and status as the root of the blues genre. Last night, in celebration of his 100th birthday, a stellar line-up of musicians gathered at the historical Apollo Theater in Harlem to pay tribute to the man who has inspired generations of artists across the globe. A benefit for the building of a Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee, the event was co-produced and hosted by actor Joe Morton in league with the Blues Foundation in Memphis.
Opening the show was the house band, made up of Steve Jordan, James Blood Ulmer, Keb Mo, Colin Linden, Sugar Blue, and Willie Weeks — a group that Morton asserted was "the greatest blues band ever assembled." After performing "Terraplane Blues," Otis Taylor came onstage with a banjo to perform a solo rendition of "Kindhearted Woman." Immediately afterward, Todd Rundgren stepped out to perform a second version of the song; Morton explained that multiple versions of songs would be performed, as Johnson himself would sometimes put the same song on a record more than once. Soon after came The Roots, performing a spirited "Milkcow’s Calf Blues."
In a surprising turn displaying his versatility, "star of stage and screen and anywhere he wants to be" Jeffrey Wright joined Keb Mo at the microphone to sing "Stones in My Passway." Tony-award winning actor and dancer Hinton Battle glided across the stage while Public Enemy frontman Chuck D rapped the verses of "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." A choir joined Macy Gray onstage for "Come on in My Kitchen," and things really heated up when the great Bettye LaVette and Taj Mahal performed "When You Got a Good Friend" together. Following Sarah Dash and Keb Mo’s "Honeymoon Blues," funk metal band Living Colour earned the first standing ovation of the night after an electric rendition of "Preachin’ Blues," featuring gut-busting basslines and ear-piercing vocals from Corey Glover. Soon they were joined by Shemekia Copeland for the first of three versions of "Stop Breakin’ Down."
In the second half of the show, Sam Moore sang a consumate cover of "Sweet Home Chicago," Predito Martinez Group performed a Latin-inspired "Travelin’ Riverside Blues," and Elvis Costello wandered out to perform a single song: "From Four Till Late." One of the night’s highlights, however was the lovely Bettye LaVette, who returned to the stage to sing "I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man" accompanied by Kevin Kiley on harmonica. Before she twisted around, encouraging cheers from the audience, the venerable soul singer announced, "I haven’t stood on this stage since 1965 — and it seemed much bigger."
Other than Todd Rundgren’s second performance, before which he mentioned that it was also the 100th birthday of the Oreo cookie and likened himself to "an inside-out Oreo" to an awkward silence, the end of the show was full of energy, with the group of performers, including Keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Living Colour, Sarah Dash, Jeffrey Wright, and Bettye LaVette, joining Patrick Droney, the 2006 winner of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation New Generation award, in "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day." The cheering audience jumped out of their seats at Sam Moore’s insistence. The event proved that Johnson, despite meeting an early death at the age of 27, was eternally influential, and most contemporary musicians owe a debt to his trail-blazing music.