What's Up, Chuck?
Family Tradition--John Lee Hooker, Jr., has a new lease on life and is beginning to make his musical mark.
Thursday, May 14, 1998
First time I saw his name, I thought somebody must''ve made a mistake. There''s only one John Lee Hooker and, at 80 years old, he''s no junior. But I was wrong. There is a John Lee Hooker, Jr. and he''s starting to make his own musical mark.
Although the junior Hooker has been around for 46 years, and doing music for most of that time, he''s just now coming into his own as a talented bluesman. I spoke with him over the telephone from his Redwood City home between dog barks and the arrival of friends at his door. His story sounds like the stuff from a blues saga.
As a child, Hooker says he traveled with his dad "about a quarter of the way around the world...I was in the guitar case with him." And as they traveled, Hooker senior would put his son on stage and in front of radio microphones.
"I started as a kid when I was 8," says Hooker. "I sat in front of a microphone, I was taken to radio stations, taken to big concert ballrooms in Detroit [where he was born], just as a kid, learning. Everybody wants to do what their dads do.
"I was always interested in what my dad did with the crowds. He made them dance, and smile, and laugh. And afterwards, they came up and hugged him."
"Being in the classroom of the master is a blessing, I guess," says Hooker, and there''s only a fraction of a pause before he corrects himself. "I know it''s a blessing. All that I''ve learned is from peeking through the keyhole, peeking through the curtains when I wasn''t supposed to. I met Big Mama [Thornton], BB [King], Albert [King], performed with Charlie Musselwhite, rode coattails with Eric Clapton before he got famous in the ''60s. And everything I saw was stored, embedded in the memory factors."
And everything seem pointed in one direction for the young Hooker: He was going to be the second coming of John Lee. The only problem was that he wasn''t yet prepared to walk that path.
"Everything I did was an obligation to follow in my dad''s footsteps," says Hooker. "But I was not prepared, not mature enough for that. I was looking for a cover, and drugs was my hideout, my cave, when I tried to turn into someone that someone else wanted me to be."
The drugs turned Hooker into someone nobody wanted him to be. Despite his father''s admonitions that he was wasting his talent, Hooker ran afoul of the law and found himself with lodgings at lovely Hotel San Quentin.
"Yeah, I did a stint in San Quentin," says Hooker. "And the fans and everyone should know about that. But first thing that I want to say, it was nothing that was heinous, perverse or violent. And it was not against women or kids. Everything I did was drug-related. It was a lot of being under the influence and possession and that sort of thing."
Now out on parole, Hooker says he''s drug-free and is going to stay that way.
"I''m delivered from drugs," says Hooker, who''s a deacon at his church. "I don''t smoke, I don''t drink. I don''t even curse."
If that sounds like an odd combination for a blues musician, judging by a raucous live recording from JJ''s Blues Club in San Jose, it does nothing to dampen his performance. Hooker''s powerful, driving vocals take blues standards and make them all his own. More than that, he''s obviously flirting with his audience, cajoling them into a frenzy, keeping the momentum rolling for a set that lasts more than an hour.
"I''m high, high off the blessings of God and the people out there," says Hooker. "That''s what gets me going. They might have had a bad day at the office, a bad day at the unemployment line and it''s my job to get them up."
Although the tape is primarily covers, Hooker is songwriter of his own merit with 14 originals in his repertoire. How many of those he''ll put those on display at Doc''s is a question; he''s learned from his dad''s experience that it''s easy to get ripped off. But the pieces of songs I heard reveal an updated blues sound, rich in tradition, but as contemporary as a 9mm "Saturday Night Special."
"Today I sing about the woes, I sing about today''s issues, what people are going through," says Hooker. "It''s about today and what''s happening today. Gangs, abortion, drugs, the IRS, American Express. What I have done with the blues, the sharecroppers woes, is mixed it with what''s going on today."
On the strength of the tape, and on the word I''ve heard from people who saw John Lee Hooker, Jr., at his two Catalyst appearances in Santa Cruz, it''s easy to predict that Saturday night at Doc''s will be a lively, exciting experience. Beyond that, it''s more difficult to see--but there''s good odds that the younger Hooker will be adding another chapter to the Hooker family legend. You don''t want to miss this show.
John Lee Hooker, Jr. Saturday, 9pm. Doc''s Nightclub, 649-4241.
Let''s traipse over to Morgan''s Coffee and Tea for a couple of shows...
On Friday, contemporary pop/jazz/folksinger Vance Gilbert plays Morgan''s. His most recent release, Shaking Off Gravity, reveals poetic pop-istry. The album, recorded at his home near Boston, is nicely unaffected, allowing Gilbert''s songwriting to shine through. In sound, the album is reminiscent of James Taylor mixed with Joni Mitchell--personably twangy in places but gilded with a jazzy patina, and a little more...impassioned? Should be a good show, a good way to spend an evening with a date.
And on Saturday, former Big Surrian singer/songwriter Alisa Fineman returns to MoCo for a concert with fellow s''n''sers Aileen Vance, TR Ritchie and accompanist Kimball Hurd. All three of the vocalists--particularly Fineman and Ritchie--have earned national acclaim for their appearances at festivals and venues around the country; and all three write songs that can run from achingly personal to socially concerned. Which should add up to two nice, mellow nights in a row at Morgan''s.
Vance Gilbert, Friday, 8pm. $10. Fineman/Vance/Ritchie/Hurd, Saturday, 8pm. $10/advance, $12/door. Morgan''s Coffee and Tea, 655-6868.
Moving from mellow to music box, Celtic musician William Jackson is playing Carleton Hall on Saturday. If you saw Braveheart, you''ve heard Jackson--that was him doing the uillean pipe theme with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. But that''s not what you''re going to hear on Saturday.
On Saturday, Jackson will be displaying his talents on the Celtic harp, on which he is equally talented. And on which the bulk of his reputation around the world rests. Think soft. Think soothing. Think relaxing.
William Jackson, Saturday, 8pm. $12/advance, $14/door. Carleton Hall at Monterey Religious Science Church. 373-7379.
And, quickly, kick it in gear for for some high-powered bluegrass. Nina Kelly is throwing another house party in her PG pad, and the guest of honor is bluegrass mandolinist extraordinaire Frank Wakefield. Joining him for the evening is guitarist David Nelson (from New Riders of the Purple Sage), fiddler James Moss, bass-man Steve Swan and banjo picker Marty Cutler.
Sorry, but Nina says it''s illegal for us to publish her address or ticket prices. You''ll just have to call.
Frank Wakefield and friends, Thursday, 7:30pm. 372-5641.