Robert Johnson Tribute, Central Park Sets Make Big Apple A Blues Mecca

Blues musicians gather to honor late legend; R.L. Burnside and Hubert Sumlin rock New York.

NEW YORK — On a day when news headlines are reporting a court decision awarding the entire financial legacy of ultimate blues legend Robert Johnson to his 69-year-old out-of-wedlock son, a gathering of musicians who've made careers playing Johnson's music celebrated his artistic legacy.

David "Honeyboy" Edwards,

COLOR="#003163">Robert Lockwood Jr., John Hammond, Chris

Whitley and Guy Davis shared the stage of the former Thalia movie theater, where they entertained a nearly full house with material composed almost exclusively by the Delta bluesman, who died in 1938 at age 27 under still-mysterious circumstances. Davis — the son of actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee — opened the evening, standing alone onstage and humorously demonstrating some hog calls with his harmonica. The Johnson tribute was kicked off when he sat down with an acoustic guitar for "Dust My Broom" (RealAudio excerpt), a song that became a slide-guitar standard in the hands of Elmore James 20 years after Johnson recorded it. Davis followed that with a 12-string

rendition of "Stones in My Passway." His "When You've Got a Good Friend" ended with a graceful slide up the neck, behind some gentle harmonics.

It's Always A Gamble

By way of introducing Edwards, Davis then cited the gambling Edwards

describes in his "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing" biography, saying of the gathering backstage, "We've been trying to avoid gambling with him; he's trying to shove a deck of cards up in everybody's face." Edwards, 85, who for a while played alongside Johnson in juke joints of rural Mississippi, where they grew up, walked onstage to join Davis in a duet on "Crossroads," a song that helped Cream and Eric Clapton gain worldwide fame in the '60s, and followed that with a solo "Walking Blues" and "West Helena Blues." "When you see him walking, he looks his age," New Yorker Andrew Reed, 47, said. "But when he sits down with that guitar, he's ageless."

John Hammond, whose record-executive dad had tried to book Johnson into

Carnegie Hall shortly before the latter's death, brought his silver National steel guitar onstage for typically intense versions of "Kind Hearted Woman," "Come On in My Kitchen" and, with Davis, "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day." Whitley, grungy in a checkered shirt that was open down the middle to reveal a tummy tattoo, stood tapping the mic stand with his motorcycle boots for a crude beat and did a raw, slashing "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Me and the Devil" solo on his own National steel. "Blues is not really a form of music; it's a lifestyle," he told the crowd.

Returning to the stage, Davis told of meeting Lockwood while in Memphis to receive a W.C. Handy "keeping the blues alive" award for his stage portrayal of Johnson in "Trick the Devil." When Lockwood beckoned to him, Davis said, he felt he'd finally earned his props — "The only cotton I ever picked was my BVDs off the floor," Davis said — even if Lockwood only wanted directions to the restroom. Lockwood, elegantly dressed in a pale lime suit and looking, as Davis pointed out, "like a judge," with his balding pate and trimmed gray beard, sat on a high stool with his blue electric 12-string and delicately picked out and sang "Stop Breaking Down" — covered by the Rolling Stones — "Steady Rolling Man," "32-20 Blues" and "Love in Vain" (also covered by the Stones). Though

Johnson's stepson Lockwood may be 85, you wouldn't know it by looking at him. He ended his set with an original and a cover of the standard "C.C. Rider" before all the evening's artists, minus Hammond, came back for "Sweet Home Chicago" and another "Dust My Broom."

Summertime Blues

Earlier in the day, as part of the SummerStage series, New York blues fans were treated to sets by two other blues legends at a free show in Central Park. Longtime Howlin' Wolf

sideman/guitarist Hubert Sumlin — backed by The Band drummer Levon Helm, with David Johansen on vocals — delivered a scorching, robust set of mostly Wolf material, opening with "Little Red Rooster" and closing more than an hour later, with "Killing Floor."

"This is, like, one of the greatest days of my life," said the ever-affable Johansen, who once fronted the New York Dolls and currently performs as Buster Poindexter and with a band named for folk archivist Harry Smith. "When I was 14, I picked up my first Howlin' Wolf record. To be here with Hubert Sumlin is like divinity itself — even if it is hot as a bastard."

Speaking of hot, following the Sumlin gang to the stage was the trio fronted by North Mississippian R.L. Burnside, whose raucous, raw, trancelike juke-joint sound is perhaps the freshest innovation to hit the blues in some time.

Despite having had to cancel recent appearances because of a sinus infection that impaired his equilibrium, Burnside was in good form, mixing in plenty of his trademark "Well, well, well"s in between cuts such as "Let My Baby Ride" (RealAudio excerpt), "It's Bad You Know" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Rollin' Tumblin.'" As if to address any doubts about his stability — despite whatever "leaks" he'd addressed in his beer bottle over the course of the afternoon — he stood to sing an encore of the Muddy Waters classic, "Mannish Boy" (RealAudio excerpt), swaying as sideman Kenny Brown worked the slide and his grandson, Cedric Burnside, pounded on the drums.

(The SummerStage series sponsored in part by