Growling, Prowling John Lee Hooker Returns In Top Form

Legendary bluesman puts on tour de force at his own Boom Boom Room in first gig after some months off.

SAN FRANCISCOJohn Lee Hooker drew a laugh from the jam-packed audience at his own Boom Boom Room club Monday night as he sang the words: "The doctor put me on milk and cream/ I'm shakin' all over."

But Hooker, in his first show since April, didn't resemble a sick man.

The 80-something bluesman has canceled a European tour and gigs in Atlanta, Montreal, Memphis, Tenn., and Ottawa since being diagnosed with a vascular condition — affecting the veins serving his stomach and kidneys — that may require surgery.

Even so, Hooker seemed to be feeling no pain Monday as he kicked off the set growling "You, you, you ... well, well, well" behind his shuffling Coast to Coast Blues Band.

He wore a black hat, bright red shirt and black suit, donning a pair of sunglasses just before he sat down with his guitar — an electric red Gibson semihollow model. His haunting vocals hushed the raucous crowd.

During the nearly hour-long set, he delivered rollicking boogies and shuffles but always returned to the deep, slow tones of his Mississippi Delta country-blues roots.

"The blues is nothing but the best — it's the best," Hooker yelled during a brooding version of "Stormy Monday." "I don't want your garbage ... Take it to the city dump and dump it," he laughed as he made up words on the fly.

He delivered the chilling classic "Serves You Right To Suffer" (RealAudio excerpt) in his primal moan, grabbing the attention of the crowd like some kind of trance-inducing blues healer.

Hooker seemed itching to launch his raw, menacing guitar attack from early on, and the fans were hungry to hear it. But it took a while before the band zeroed into the key he was playing. Hooker's face remained intense and determined as he got into the groove.

On the moody "You Ain't Gonna Worry My Life No More," his guitar playing was so minimal that the song seemed to hang on a thin string. "Woman hurt me so bad/ Deep down in my heart/ Tears come in my eyes/ Teardrops falling," he sang.

During a blues-rock rendition of "High-Heeled Sneakers," Hooker's spirit seemed to soar. "Put on your high-heeled sneakers and dance all night," he yelled.

In the second half of the show, Hooker switched guitars — to a black model — and the band cranked out some hot boogie numbers. Hooker attacked the guitar with abandon, firing off explosive, edgy licks that excited the crowd — characters ranging from diehard, sharp-dressed blues fans to bikers and clean-cut dot-commers.

Throughout the night, Hooker called on bandmembers to solo. Billy Johnson's authentic, bluesy guitar tone was a highlight, and he supplied plenty of juice on the boogie songs. Guitarist Rich Kirch energized the band with his biting leads, and Lizz Fisher's stormy organ playing surged through the sound.

"Come on, cutie," Hooker called, coaxing Fisher to play a lead. He often called on Steve Long to solo on trumpet, and smiled when he did.

On a cut-loose version of "The Sky Is Cryin'," Hooker sang, "The blues can't get me now/ It's sunny on both sides of the street."

Benny Arroyo, a fan and blues musician who came from Pittsburg, Calif., to hear the show, said, "It took a while to get started, but it sounded great."

The show wound down with Coast to Coast Blues Band singer Juce Garcia, who'd opened the show, jumping back onstage to dance to the boogie as Hooker laughed and urged her to "shake it, baby."