JAZZ / Blues with sass and soul: Phil Johnson reviews Otis Rush at the Jazz Cafe, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What is it about Englishmen and the blues? From the first high, keening guitar note of the evening the chaps in suits in the balcony were stiffening their jaws and rolling their eyes to heaven, exchanging sleek Cheshire-cat grins as they did so. Down by the stage was where it really got serious, though. One man mouthed every phrase of every solo, moving his lips to one side to simulate the bending of a string on the blue notes, and occasionally strumming the air or shaking a fist in a 'Go on my son]' gesture, a curious kind of blues salute, to be sure. And this was before Otis Rush had even taken the stage. In time- honoured fashion he had sent his band on ahead and it was the rhythm guitarist - a white hillbilly type - whose moves occasioned the early scrimmages of adulation. The response was entirely understandable; if he was this good - and he was awesome - what on earth would Otis be like?

After a couple of numbers, the star made his way through the diners on the balcony and paused at the head of the stairs to the stage, accompanied by his pretty Japanese guitar- tuner-cum-minder, seeming in no hurry to join the band. At length the group finished playing, the guitarist introduced the 'country boy' from Philadelphia, Mississippi, and stepped back into the shadows of his rhythm role as Rush descended the stairs and was plugged into the mains. Dressed, despite his long Chicago associations, western- style, with grey suit and matching stetson, Rush looked - for a veteran bluesman, where hard knocks are part of the job description - very good indeed, and 20 years younger than the 60 he will be later this month.

While his predecessor had offered either long, clean, single-note lines or chugging power chords, Rush gave everything at the same time, to the max. Playing left-handed on a white Fender that appeared to be strung upside-down, Rush plays the blues in an intensely vocalised way; he can solo on the same one note for what seems an age without repeating himself. Sometimes using a plectrum but more often strumming with his thumb and picking with his fingers, he creates thick textures of sound burring with reverb. His complex fingering would defeat any student of guitar tablature; strange cack-handed shapes giving voice to a sound that fairly crackles with electricity, the instrumental response following a vocal call barked out with sass and soul. In a word, he was great and kept getting greater, playing almost constantly for an hour and a half, solo following solo. While Rush got to strut, the excellent band got to sweat, piling up riff after riff for him to decorate. For the last number he brought the rhythm guitarist off the back-line once again and they duelled thrillingly for 10 minutes or so. By this time the guy at the front had got lock-jaw.

Perhaps the question needs to be asked about how many climactic, sustained, high guitar notes a performance can take. After all, B B King has made a career out of them and little else. The answer would appear to be an infinite number, so long as the excitement level is kept, as with Rush, to the maximum. One left for home wanting the blues and nothing but, a 12-bar riff tingling the nerves from within, virtual guitar solos tumbling from one's mouth, jaw a-tremble.