When Jody Williams took the stage Wednesday night at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, he didn't dive into a rendition of the blues standard "Don't Start Me to Talkin'." But it might have been appropriate.
The 78-year-old Williams, a longtime guitarist for Howlin' Wolf, walked in slowly from stage right after Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson introduced him. A stagehand set a chair down, and then Williams sat down and began playing. Period. Over the course of four numbers — an instrumental, two Wolf tunes and an encore — Williams played soulful, blistering guitar and uttered just a pair of terse "thank yous," which fell silent without a microphone.
The show, titled "Blues at the Crossroads Two," paid tribute to Wolf and another blues pioneer, Muddy Waters, and the musicians on stage must have had plenty of stories to tell about them. James Cotton, the other veteran who came on in the second half, played for years in Waters' band, and nearly all the younger performers crossed paths with them at some point.
Given the show's lineup and theme, it was easy to imagine reminiscences ("One night in Chicago, Muddy taught me this riff ...") fighting for stage time with the music. But at Segerstrom, the focus held squarely on the latter, with Waters and Wolf mentioned only in brief asides and "Spoonful," "Got My Mojo Workin'" and other classics telling most of the story.
That was a story, of course, that began in cities much less affluent than Costa Mesa and venues much shabbier than Segerstrom, and at times Wednesday, the setting felt almost incongruous. Frank Sinatra was once quoted as saying that for all his riches and fame, he still considered himself a saloon singer, and likewise, the songs popularized by Wolf, Waters and their peers remain very much at home in saloons, roadhouses and musty dives.
Evidently, the performers at Segerstrom — who also included Bob Margolin, Tinsley Ellis and the Thunderbirds — were in that informal spirit. Far from a wistful retrospective, the show played as a joyous romp through decades of blues history, as the performers joshed, laughed and occasionally split into duos or trios to play stripped-down numbers. At times, all the evening lacked was a neon Michelob sign on the wall and a tip jar at the front of the stage.
With the Thunderbirds' rhythm section backing Wilson and other headliners, the show boasted solid ensemble playing, but many of the most effective moments were the sparest. A shimmering "Little Red Rooster" featured just Wilson on harmonica and Ellis on vocal and guitar, while on "Sad Letter Blues," Cotton's harmonica and Margolin's guitar played delicately off each other behind Wilson's mournful delivery.
The main weakness of the show was the weakness of the blues itself — namely, that while the genre is riveting in measured spoonfuls, it can reveal its limitations over a two-hour performance. Though an expert could no doubt point out subtle differences in tone and rhythm, even a show as fine as "Blues at the Crossroads Two" might leave a casual listener trying to remember which soulful howl or which keening guitar solo belonged to which song.
The title of one of Waters' most famous tunes, "The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll," acknowledges the roots of the music that took hold of America in the 1950s and has never let go. But rock 'n' roll has since had a baby of its own — the genre known simply as rock, encompassing everything from thrash metal to choral pop — which makes the blues popularized by Waters and Wolf now like a grandfather on an extended family tree.
Given the genre's tendency toward sameness, it's hard to deny that the artists who tapped the blues as part of a larger vision (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Lucinda Williams and any other favorite you can name) made music that is deeper and richer than their predecessors'. And yet old-style blues like the kind played at Segerstrom still demands undeniable respect, if only for the knowledge that modern music, and the last century altogether, would be a different story without it.
It helps to hear the craft from some of its most renowned elder statesmen. Williams and Cotton may not have been around when spirituals and field hollers had a baby and named it the blues, but their longevity — both men were born just a few weeks after Elvis Presley, to put them in context — branded the show with an aura of, if not a firsthand source, at least something close to it.
While Williams cut a tight-lipped presence onstage, Cotton embodied the music's jovial and even lusty side, punctuating his harmonica blowing with whoops and hoarse exhortations to the crowd. "If you feel like shaking what you got, go ahead," he rasped at one point, and the audience, which gave a standing ovation more than once during the night, seemed happy to oblige.
Hearing those old chestnuts, it was hard to shake one sobering thought: Not only have Wolf and Waters long since passed on, but so have Presley, Hendrix and many of the other musicians who drew inspiration from them. "Blues at the Crossroads Two," like its 2011 predecessor, offered a link to a time that is increasingly remote. And for two hours, it was easy to slip half a century back and imagine that those blues, as they throbbed and rattled, were on the verge of birthing a scandalous new child.