It didn’t smell like skunked beer or cigarette ash. The chandeliers weren’t replaced with neon. But Buddy Guy was there, conjuring ghosts from his cream-finish Stratocaster for a crowd of more than 200. Had the White House ever felt more like a roadhouse?
Guy, B.B. King, Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck were among the blues-rock royals assembled to perform at 1600 Pennsylvania on Tuesday night — an evening that ended with a singing performance from President Obama himself.
It was the latest (also: the loudest, wildest, most dynamic, most exciting) in a series of semi-regular concerts hosted by first lady Michelle Obama celebrating the American songbook.
Previous performances in the series have saluted the music of the civil rights era, Motown and Broadway, as well as jazz, country (twice), classical and Latin music. Now, to mark Black History Month, the Obamas honored the blues, arguably the most influential of any American musical genre.
“This music speaks to something universal,” the president said before introducing King. “No one goes through life without both joy and pain, triumph and sorrow. The blues gets all of that.”
Jagger appeared to summon the genre’s cumulative energy when he came strutting into the East Room. Clad in a black leather coat, dark pants and cherry-red cross-trainers, the Rolling Stones frontman peacocked across the stage and punched the air, that mysterious electricity still crackling through his 68-year-old limbs. He is a man without an off switch, or even a dimmer, and he gave the White House performance by which all other White House performances shall now be judged.
Between a feral rendition of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and the Stones’ disco-blues gem “Miss You,” Jagger vamped through “Commit a Crime” alongside Beck, dedicating the performance to the late Chicago blues great Hubert Sumlin.
Sumlin was one of the genre’s many pioneers who died in the past year — among the others were Pinetop Perkins, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Big Jack Johnson and, most recently, Etta James. Nodding to their forebears, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes offered a somber, stately rendition of James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
Other moments in the program seemed to place the future of blues in the able hands of Gary Clark Jr., the 28-year-old Texas guitar ace who was given more time onstage than any other performer. He made the most of it, delivering a heavy, heartfelt “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)” before pivoting into a lithe “Catfish Blues.”
Also on the junior side of the spectrum was New Orleans phenom Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, 26. Earlier Tuesday at the White House, Andrews — along with guitarist Keb Mo and singer Shemekia Copeland — spoke at an educational seminar hosted by the first lady. More than 100 students from 24 schools across the country listened attentively as Grammy Museum director Robert Santelli traced the blues’ migration from the deep South into the bloodstream of contemporary rock-and-roll. Then, after a question-and-answer session, Mo, Copeland and Andrews broke into song, the students stomping their dress shoes on the State Dining Room hardwood.
That couldn’t compete with the ruckus that Andrews brought in the East Room that night, guiding the crowd through a rowdy call-and-response during “St. James Infirmary” — with even the first couple getting in the act.
But it wouldn’t be the only singing that President Obama did Tuesday night. As the evening’s performers finished off “Sweet Home Chicago,” Guy summoned the president to the stage. “I heard you singing Al Green,” he said, referring to Obama’s recent crooning at the Apollo Theater. “You done started something, and you gotta keep it up now!”
For a moment, the president appeared reluctant — who could follow Mick? — but he grabbed the microphone to trade a few lines with King: “Come on, baby don’t you want to go, [back to that same old place], sweet home Chicago.”
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