When an all-star lineup performed Bobby Charles’ songs at Jazz Fest in 2007, you couldn’t help but feel that they showed the songs off better than Charles would have. The same held true Thursday night when C.C. Adcock and Lil’ Band o’ Gold paid tribute to the Louisiana songwriting legend who died last January. It’s not just stellar lineups that made the difference; it’s that Charles was a reluctant performer even in his heyday, and battles with cancer and back problems left him weak with limited mobility in later years.
Still, the tribute at the House of Blues’ Parish covered the full expanse of Charles’ career in a way that only record fans would. “Later Alligator” and “Walking to New Orleans” were easy, obvious choices, but Jon Cleary and Adcock traded verses on the conceptual follow-up to “Later Alligator,” “Take it Easy Greazy.” Warren Storm sang a number of semi-obscure numbers, and Adcock led the band through a rocking version of 1955’s “Teenagers.” They didn’t just honor his career, though. They took the songs seriously and played them with arrangements and tempos that presented them as remarkable songs and as the product of a time and culture. They were handled lovingly, but they weren’t dumbed down or streamlined for modern tastes.
Not surprisingly, such treatments thrilled the packed house, though those in the Parish for the stars more than Charles were pretty chatty during the ballads. Highlights included a gorgeous, soulful version of “The Jealous Kind” sung by Band o’ Gold member David Egan, a spirited “Street People” by Ani DiFranco, and a version of “I Spent All My Money Loving You” led by Shannon McNally. The song’s surging energy recalled the Band as it chugged through the verse, then picked up fresh energy when anyone with a mic sang the title as they charged into the chorus.
The guest rumors were out of control by Thursday afternoon and included Robert Plant (who’d sang with Lil’ Band o’ Gold when he was in town cutting his tracks for the Fats Domino tribute Goin’ Home) and Michael Stipe (who’s in town working on a new R.E.M. album). Neither were a part of the night, though Elvis Costello did appear to pull out an old chestnut that I didn’t recognize, then brought swamp pop singer Tommy McLain out for a rousing version of “Before I Grow Too Old,” which McLain sang earlier on his own. The first guests onstage were Roddie Romero and Eric Adcock who sang “Walking to New Orleans” with Dr. John on the B3 organ. Though he played much of the set, Dr. John never took a lead vocal turn.
The tribute’s breadth not only highlighted how many great songs Bobby Charles wrote, but it put him in an interesting context. It presented him as someone who was part of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but who’d find himself in Woodstock, New York writing the counterculture blues. One of his greatest songs, “Tennessee Blues,” has a pot bust in Nashville as its subtext. He would become a symbol of classic musical values as his age and home in Abbeville separated him from the language and spirit of the moment, but there too, he excelled.
Thursday night’s show gave the crowd a good reason to track down Bobby Charles CDs – perhaps the best tribute he could get.