Charley Patton Tribute

On February 1st, the third of a four-part concert series at Merkin Concert Hall, paid tribute to the great Charley Patton. Below is an review from the New Jersey Star-Ledger...

Saturday, February 04, 2006
The New Jersey Star-Ledger 
NEW YORK -- Although born and bred as the African-American song of lament, longing and perseverance, the blues has always been colorblind.
The first star bluesman of the Mississippi Delta -- Charley Patton (1891-1934) -- was reputedly part Native American, with Cherokee blood. He taught African-American youngster Chester Burnett how to play the blues his way, although the boy who grew up to be Howling Wolf had first fallen for the "blue yodels" of country-music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.
Howling Wolf, in turn, taught Patton's hit "Pony Blues" to a white kid in the'60s. And it was that kid, John Hammond, now 63, who helped bring the equal-opportunity art form of the blues full circle with his closing performance at Wednesday's Patton tribute concert at Merkin Concert Hall.
As part of the New York Guitar Festival's blues series at Merkin (which concludes with a tribute to Elizabeth Cotten on Wednesday), this show featured diverse artists paying homage to Patton's legacy by playing his songs and those of such progeny as Robert Johnson and Son House.
Rough-voiced and hard-living, Patton set the archetypal tone as a bluesman -- and he earned fame for playing the guitar between his legs long before Jimi Hendrix was born. Hammond remained seated, but his hard-won mastery of the country-blues idiom is such that he might as well have Mississippi River water running through his veins.
Fishing harmonicas from his pockets, Hammond varied from acoustic six-string to a National Steel guitar that was made the year after Patton died. He sang "Pony Blues" with the Wolf's full moon moan and underlined the debt of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" to Patton's '20s version. After decades spent hip-deep in the old blues songbook, Hammond started writing his own tunes a just a few years ago. When the Jersey City resident rued the bitter spin of fortune's wheel in his "Come to Find Out," it was like a folk painting come to life -- and did his teachers proud.
Clarion-voiced Toshi Reagon opened the night by reinforcing the protest embedded in the blues. She sparred gently with festival host John Schaefer of WNYC radio and dedicated her gospel-accented set to the late Coretta Scott King. Reagon also took care to point out that she learned such songs as "Down the Dirt Road" from Revenant's Grammy-winning Patton boxed set -- a present from her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon of African-American vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Rory Block shared stories of learning the blues as a Greenwich Village teenager at the elbow of such living legends as Son House. She brought House's "County Farm Blues" to life with her percussive guitar style, later partnering with guitarist and old Village pal Stefan Grossman for Patton's "Moon Goin' Down."
Avant-jazz slide guitarist Dave Tronzo twinned the blues with outré-bebop harmony, envisioning a meeting between Patton and Ornette Coleman. Just as fantastical, Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye jammed, very loosely, with festival producer David Spelman on guitar, imagining Patton's tunes as a Rosetta stone of rock'n'roll.
The night's most disarming performance pointed to the universal nature of blues feeling. Harry Manx played the mohan vina, an Indian combo of slide guitar and sitar. The Canadian transformed "Down the Dirt Road" into Ganges Delta blues, making the death-haunted words -- "I'm going away to a world unknown/I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long" -- seem less fatalistic than meditative.
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John Hammond’s National Steel guitar that 
was made the year after Patton died.
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Professor Tronzo and his beloved Silvertone.
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Harry Manx checks the evening’s program
for typos.
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One of the day’s many backstage jam sessions.
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Even WNYC’s John Schaefer can’t resist
picking up a guitar.
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Toshi Reagon, who dedicated her gospel-
accented set to the late Coretta Scott King.
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Rory Block and unexpected guest Stefan Grossman
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Harry Manx plays the blues on the Indian mohan veena
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Harmonica player Steve Marriner joins Harry Manx.
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Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Band) and David Spelman
performing Patton’s “Some These Days”
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Photographer Ralph Gibson catches Tronzo
during his soundcheck.
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Sound guru Dan Kocen explains the nuances
of microphone placement.
Photos 1 - 3, and 9 – 12 by Jim McCarthy ( All others by Glyn Emmerson.


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