Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Easy Listening

Ann Arbor, Mich.--It is sometime before one in the afternoon. I'm sitting on a blanket in the sun about halfway back at the 15,000-capacity Otis Spann Memorial Field, right near the organic food stand. The P.A. has just snapped in again, and the Mojo Boogie Band, one of countless local groups, is pushing into my consciousness. "I got a gal that lives up on the hill," I've heard that line before, but what song is it from? Any one of 50, probably. And now they have moved on to an easy rocking version of "Take a Whiff on Me." I've never heard it done quite that way before.

There are 7,000 or so people here at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, 1972, and the figure will rise to well over 10,000 before nightfall. The vast (although not monolithic) majority of the patrons are white, and they share a sensibility. The garish strain of the original white blues sensibility, which was English, has toned down and cooled out. White people listen to the blues in this relaxed picnic atmosphere in much the same way that the Mojo Boogie Band plays them--so good naturedly that I can review the music while it happens. Music pleases me, and it's good for me, but it makes no demands on my attention.

This remarkably intelligent, idealistic and well-meaning festival will probably make money where its university-run predecessors did not, because, unlike the university festivals which concentrated on country blues, it caters to the white blues sensibility. But at the same time, it is consciously designed to broaden it. With one or two debatable exceptions in the jazz category, there has been no bad music here--none at all--and almost no difficulties. Working from a bottom of good Chicago gutbucket--most impressively, Mighty Joe Young whose band played for two hours Saturday, backing Koko Taylor and Lucille Spann as well as Young himself--the offerings have extended from the jazz theater of Sun Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra to the Brummagem Gumbo of Dr. John.

But for me, the highest moments of the festival have come from the adversary kings of Chicago blues, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

The Wolf is 62, and he's a sick man. Renowned for his showmanship, he is no longer free to strut the stage and roll on the floor, and his voice has lost some of its power. But he is a menacing presence just sitting in a chair, and when he hefted himself up to close with "Wang Dang Doodle," the whole crowd was with him.

Although he has six years on his old rival, Muddy Waters has also performed mostly from a chair since a major auto accident a few years ago. But where the Wolf excites you with his struggle to rise, Muddy obviously has a difficult time just sitting still. His voice sounds virtually undiminished live, and his confidence on stage is almost total. He knows how to conserve his energy. After closing with a prolonged version of "I've Got My Mojo Working," most of it performed not only standing up but running around, he sent his band back for the demanded encore, and after his band was through people still wanted more.

There have been other exceptional performances. Sun Ra finished Friday night with an act that would make any self-conscious "Theater of the Ridiculous" look really ridiculous, complete with deca-percussion, sci-fi rhetoric, and shower curtain costumes, and held almost half the audience. Lucille Spann sang the blues for her late husband, the legendary pianist, and said more about female blues singing than anything Koko Taylor could come up with. And Pharoah Sanders provided the best jazz of the festival.

But there's more coming, including Miles Davis tonight. Tune in next Sunday for the lowdown rundown.

N'day, Sept. 11, 1972