Everything was vintage, free and rendered fresh on August 10th, during the evening segment of the Roots of American Music Festival at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park bandshell. It is hard to imagine a finer roots experience in midsummer New York than the shot of twang that started the night: the open-air sound, in clear, cool weather, of guitarist James Burton reprising his original solo in Dale Hawkins' 1957 hit "Susie Q." Burton, who turns 74 on August 21st, was actually the biggest star, with singer Sleepy LaBeef, in a Rockin' Rockabilly Revue that gathered minor-but-revered names of the late Fifties who remain in sharp, enthusiastic form.
Indeed, LaBeef, a big man in black, had to be cut off in mid-growl by the MC when his set with Burton – including a medley of Elvis Presley's Sun hits, mostly given over to Burton's still-tart and precise facility – threatened to eat up the Revue's entire hour. Johnny Powers, a Michigan native with the distinction of having recorded for both Sun and Motown, dusted off his 1957 signature 45 "Long Blond Hair" (which he cut for neither); the lanky Texan Gene Summers delivered both sides of his 1958 double whammy, "Straight Skirt" b/w "School of Rock 'n' Roll." The Philadelphia singer-guitarist Charlie Gracie, a spry 77, had a bona fide Number One record in his brief set, 1957's "Butterfly," which he performed with brio and a smile as bright as his electric-blue jacket.
The Highs of Lowe
It was easy to see why those singers never hit near-Elvis heights. They had tunes, the moves and, in Gracie's case, genuine impact. (George Harrison was a Gracie fan.) But one of Powers' other songs, a look over the shoulder with the proud chorus "I was there when it happened / I played my part in rock & roll," was basically Presley's 1954 Sun debut, "That's All Right," with different words. He, like Summers and Gracie, got a good piece of the Big Bang. But it wasn't big enough.
Closing the night, the British singer-songwriter and power-pop icon Nick Lowe cracked jokes about the workman-like nature of his own career, noting that Diana Ross bought him a new bathroom when the diva recorded his (and Paul Carrack's) "I Live on a Battlefield." Playing entirely solo, with just an acoustic guitar, Lowe also demonstrated how much his wry, buoyant writing has always drawn, in strum and swing, from rock's early blueprints. Sentiment was something else: In "I Trained Her to Love Me," Lowe's deep, rich croon suggested a less operatic Roy Orbison; the sly, sinister sting was entirely his.
Lowe was quick in his coverage of the sparkling, barbed concision in his songbook. He performed with Ramones-like speed and Willie Nelson-style agility, running through 20 songs inside an hour, and dutifully going back to his New Wave-cult-idol era: "Cruel to Be Kind," "Ragin' Eyes," "When I Write the Book." He noted in a quick aside, during the jumping jukebox-doll memoir "I Knew the Bride," that he wrote the song in 1971 – then just spitting distance from his roots. He doesn't sound any farther now.
Southern Rock Mini-Operas
Sandwiched between Lowe and his elders, Jason Isbell – the former singer-guitarist in Drive-By Truckers, now leading his own fine, band the 400 Unit – was a comparative pup, showcasing songs from his latest album, Southeastern. The oldest, original entry in his set was Isbell's title contribution to his first album with the Truckers, 2003's Decoration Day. And when he went way back, it was as far as the Rolling Stones' 1971 LP Sticky Fingers, with a closing, clanging-guitar cover of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking."
But there are long miles and extensive bruising in Isbell's writing and deceptively youthful voice, which he rolled out with both plaintive grace ("Traveling Alone," "Cover Me Up") and authentic Southern-rock churn. Considering the competition, Isbell fired some of the best lines of the night, in "Live Oak" ("There's a man who walks beside me / It is who I used to be") and "Super 8" ("Don't want to die in a Super 8 Motel"). But this was the hands-down winner: "If there's one thing I can't stand / It's this bar and this cover band / Trying to fake their way through 'Castles Made of Sand,'" he sang in "Codeine," from the 2011 album Here We Rest. The song was really about a lot of things he couldn't take, delivered in a manner you can't turn down.
A Funk Legend Returns
On August 11th, halfway across town at Central Park's Summerstage, singer-guitarist Shuggie Otis walked out like he was trying to hide in plain sight: in a black suit, fedora and bug-eye sunglasses. It was weird for a sunny afternoon but appropriate for a man, now 59, who has been out of the limelight by choice for more than half his life. The son of the legendary R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie was only 21 and an acknowledged monster on his instrument when he issued the one-man-band classic, Inspiration Information, a record of sublime funk prophecy – and only 22 when he all but disappeared from the music business.
A recent two-CD reissue of that album with previously unreleased material, Inspiration Information/Wings of Love, attests to the strong work Otis continued to do during his retreat, in the studio. But his Summerstage show – part of a concurrent return to touring, with a band including other Otis family members – was uneven and eccentric, evidence of a legend not yet certain how to carry that weight, after so long, in performance. There were rambling introductions and shakey vocals. Otis opened with a quick, bumpy version of his best-known song, "Strawberry Letter 23" (a Top Five hit for the Brothers Johnson in 1977), then played it again – better – near the end of the set.
There were also rewarding moments, when Otis soloed in slinky runs and a nasal-fuzz tone, at one point firing vicious glissando through a wah-wah gargle. His seven-piece band had a tough gig, recreating the taut, percolating locomotion Otis achieved by himself on Inspiration Information. But in that album's "Aht Uh Mi Head" and Wings of Love's "Trying to Get Close to You," there was also something promising, like There's a Riot-era Sly Stone with less machines – more erratic but with a compensating humanity.
This is a resurrection in progress. The material is there – in the songs, the chops and the leader. He has the genes too. Time, practice and sticking around should take care of the rest.