JAZZ / Boom-time blues: Phil Johnson reports on Mose Allison and the Blues Brothers at Birmingham

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THE BLUES has - appropriately enough - a hard time of it trying to escape from down-home stereotypes. Whether it's lager ads on television or Robert Johnson on CD, the image persists of pain, misery and rickety Southern shacks haunted by the Devil or the repo man. A cult of the primitive has helped conceal the fact that, like country music, blues can be sophisticated too, with lyrics as witty and urbane as any Broadway show-tune. They can even be the province, as one of Mose Allison's album-titles puts it, of a middle-class white boy.

The singer and pianist, born in Mississippi in 1927, may look like a comfortably-off American tourist but he's an authentic bluesman none the less. He must be: John Mayall's Bluesbreakers used to cover his songs. In the 1960s, when you could count on a British blues boom every few years, Allison's songs were among the regular imports, his Prestige and Atlantic albums plundered by Mayall, Georgie Fame and others. On Saturday in Birmingham's Grand Hotel, the debt was being repaid, with Van Morrison and Robert Plant parting with money to check Allison out.

He didn't disappoint. While struggling a little with a British rhythm section of Harvey Weston on bass and Peter Yorke, the Spencer Davis Group's drummer, on drums, Allison imposed his quirky, individual, style immediately. His piano technique is much more difficult to imitate than his singing. An accompanist with Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan in the 1950s, Allison learned to keep the pulse of boogie-woogie blues while overlaying it with delicate bop effects. Following the vocal-call and instrumental- response pattern, he first sings a short, barbed line of lyrics then stretches out into a lengthy riposte at the keyboard.

When he solos, the references get more diverse: elements of Bach and the Baroque, as well as the blues, are all delivered in a heavy percussive style, rippling with cross-rhythms. It's difficult to accompany and you pity the bass and drums team who probably met Allison for the first time on stage. Even the more traditional material by Percy Mayfield, Robert Lockwood or Willie Dixon is given fiendish time-signatures. If the blues is supposed to be easy to play, no one told Allison.

What do you do when you've seen the film and bought the video, T-shirt and sunglasses? You may have to see the Blues Brothers Band live. A half-empty first-house show at Birmingham Town Hall without a party to party with wasn't a happy experience. This is the blues as themed entertainment, with the band members cast as cartoon characters. Unfortunately, Donald 'Duck' Dunn and the rest remain all too human. To say they look grizzled doesn't even get close. They crank out songs from the film and the Stax song-book with perfunctory enthusiasm, leaving the hard work to the two vocalists, Larry Thurston and Eddie 'Knock on Wood' Floyd.

But the formula is a successful one, and the audience appeal cuts through the usual boundaries of age and taste. Old Teds with their families, pony-tailed blues-and- soul buffs, heavy rockers, and little boys dressed in Jake and Elwood costumes - everyone, it seems, loves the Blues Brothers. We may yet be looking at Blues Brothers theme-parks. If so, there's sure to be a rickety old shack somewhere on the lot.

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