Experience Music Report #7: Priceless Performances By Patti Smith, Taj Mahal

Bo Diddley, Johnnie Johnson also prove big bucks not needed for good live music.

SEATTLE — "Interactive" didn't have to mean high-tech at the Experience Music Project, the new rock 'n' roll museum summed up by inaugural weekend guest and performer Patti Smith as a "flawed but beautiful attempt to try something different."

Indeed, there was R&B saxophonist/singer Big Jay McNeely staking his turf Saturday afternoon in the middle of the Mural Amphitheater crowd, mingling with the people and wailing away as if he was still in his 1949 prime.

McNeely was one of the pioneering performers brought in by the EMP to play Friday and Saturday at several free events, which contrasted with the big-ticket Memorial Stadium shows (Saturday night's No Doubt/Beck concert topped out at $150) and the entrance fee to the museum itself, where regular admission is $19.95. Fans had no-cost listens to such priceless entertainers as Bo Diddley, hugely influential pianist Johnnie Johnson, tradition-celebrating Taj Mahal and roots-rocker Dave Alvin.

Friday night belonged to Smith, the populist punk singer/songwriter/poet who reprised a recent show at the nearby Moore Theater that is already legendary here with a captivating performance at the Mural Amphitheater. Her set climaxed with a ferocious encore medley of "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" and "Gloria" that evoked memories of her mind-set-altering arrival on the music scene a quarter-century ago.

Smith's concert approached total abandon, although not total recall. She had a senior rocker moment in her version of the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," mistakenly believing she had forgotten the words, and she got lost on both her attempts to leave the stage during her set. She also risked self-parody with a sympathetic reading of Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" leading into a heartfelt yet embarrassingly obvious "About a Boy," a tribute to late local antihero Kurt Cobain.

All was forgiven, though, by Smith's feral power, her "People Have the Power" optimism and irrepressible personality. "If we hurry," Smith quipped as her set neared two hours in length, "you can still catch Metallica."

American Music

Preceding Smith onstage was singer-guitarist Alvin, who offered a possible explanation for the curious transition: "I saw Patti Smith at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach [Calif.] in 1975," he said, "and it changed my life." (As it turned out, Alvin admitted that several concerts changed his life, including two by museum semi-namesake Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970.)

Alvin played a riveting set of "American Music" (as celebrated in his song of the same name recorded with the Blasters), and rocked out with the help of the Guilty Men, who were impressive to a man. (And woman, as the group now includes standout bassist Sarah Brown of Austin, Texas. "I'm going to change the name of the band to the Guilty Persons," Alvin promised.)

Alvin featured such original story-songs as "Abilene" (RealAudio excerpt) and "King of California," but he and his band were in roots-rock heaven on a medley that encompassed "Jubilee Train," the Johnny Burnette Rock and Roll Trio's "Train Kept A-Rollin'" and Chuck Berry's "Promised Land."

Seattle's own Christy McWilson, an Alvin protégé, opened Friday's show with an appealingly twangy presentation of such moving songs as "The Weight of the World" and "Apple Doll" from her debut solo album, The Lucky One.

Former local (Tacoma, Wash.) Neko Case upped the twang factor Saturday, when she followed the electronic, theremin-waving IQU on the Flag Plaza stage. Now residing in Chicago ("It's pretty good," she said), Case delivered stellar originals such as "Favorite" and "Make Your Bed": "Make your bed the river, little girl/I know you can't swim, but I'll tuck you in."

Back over at the Mural Amphitheater, Taj Mahal headlined Saturday's proceedings with the help of his Phantom Blues Band. In fact, the blues did seem something of a phantom presence at times, as the ever-unpredictable Taj Mahal chose to put on a largely R&B revue, complete with a two-man horn section.

"That's about as slow as we'll go tonight," he said after singing a outright blues number, T-Bone Walker's "Here in the Dark."

More predictably, Taj Mahal was a delight, whether sounding like Otis Redding gone fishin' on his own "EZ Rider" or introducing New Orleans second-line rhythms in "Down Home Girl."

Gettin' Diddley Wit It

The real star on Saturday, though, was the man Taj Mahal termed "the maestro," Bo Diddley. A legend even in his own mind — citing major influences on the music of today, he only got around to blues legends Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker before his own name came up — Diddley displayed his trademark rectangular guitar and a personality that was anything but square.

At 71, Diddley went beyond such standards as "Roadrunner" and "Diddley Daddy" (RealAudio excerpt) to incorporate hip-hip moves, to hilarious effect, especially on a performance-oriented number that might well have been called "Diddley Mack Daddy." He also rapped on "Kids Don't Do It," his attempt to reach out to today's youth; no fan of sparing the rod, Diddley extended his concert "on my own time" to stress to parents the importance of discipline.

Diddley was joined on "Mona" by Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding, which was clearly a pleasure for all concerned. A less-pleased Diddley, who has long felt that his famous "Bo Diddley beat" (that "shave and a haircut, six bits" rhythm) has been exploited without his profiting, revealed that he now has a microchip on his shoulder: "There's a new thief out here called the Internet," Diddley said, "and I can't stand no more stealing."

Diddley followed Johnnie Johnson, whose influence on rock 'n' roll has been less heralded, least of all by him. Rock legend Chuck Berry based his nimble guitar style on Johnson's piano playing, which was in fine shape here on such songs as "Kansas City" and his own groundbreaking "Johnnie's Boogie."

Johnson capped his set with "Tanqueray" (RealAudio excerpt), a song he once collaborated on with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who asked the piano man to sing. "I can't hardly talk, much less sing," Johnson recalled telling Richards. "You're on dope or somethin'."