Critic's Choice

Over on Dowling Street, the veterans of life and the blues sit in icehouses and barber shops, talking about the Action Town's glory days, when you could walk from one end of the Third Ward to the other any night of the week and hear music every step of the way. The musicians they discuss are mentioned by nicknames carved deep in Houston history: T-Bone; Big Momma, who did "Hound Dog" before Elvis; Gatemouth; Poppa Hops; Cleanhead. There are very few artists who sewed such a tight stitch in the fabric of a community that just a first name says it all. Albert, God rest his soul -- talk about a guitar that rang like a bell. And most of all, Bobby.

Bobby "Blue" Bland has a voice that grabbed the city by the heartstrings in the late '40s and has yet to let go. From the Ebony, to JB's Entertainment Center, to this weekend's show at Rockefeller's, Bland has been the king of the R&B ballad long enough to be -- at least among musicians -- the yardstick by which other balladeers are judged. Indeed, there's no compliment of an unknown vocalist more likely to elicit disbelief than "has almost as sweet a voice as Bobby."

That sweet voice made its professional debut on the streets of Memphis shortly after World War II, where Bland, B.B. King and Johnny Ace performed as the Beale Streeters. After signing with Duke Records, the members of the trio began solo careers. When Houston's Peacock Records acquired Duke, Bland's smooth, melodic voice first reached its full potential during collaborations with such musicians' musicians as Pluma Davis and Joe Scott. The Duke/Peacock years also allied Bland with Third Ward songwriter Joe Medwick, whose understanding of human nature provided Bland's voice with such timeless ballads as "Further Up the Road" and "I Pity the Fool." Bland's forte is interpretation, not songwriting; he has a unique talent for transforming songs written by others into a message vivid enough to make listeners feel that he's been reading their mail. It's a talent that limits attempts to describe Bland as a bluesman or a balladeer. More accurately, he's a singer whose talents transcend anything narrower than human emotion.

There's a great line in James Lee Burke's Dixie City Jam where a country musician-turned-preacher is asked by a detective if he knows any blues players, and replies "Music's one club. Hit's like belonging to the church. Hit don't matter which room you're in, long as you're in the building." There's few stronger testaments to that profound truth than Bland's R&B versions of George Jones and Merle Haggard songs, which inspired other blues singers to mine the creations of country songwriters for lyrics of love and heartache. Indeed, it's hard to reflect on Bland's talents and career in comparison to certain commercial "superstars" without wondering if heinous, frequently denied, industry attitudes may not have survived the renaming of the "race" Billboard chart to "R&B." To offer an example: after you've been moved to tears by Bland's version of "In the Ghetto" you'll never hear what's-his-name's rendition without bursting into laughter.

Perhaps that's the secret of Bland's rare staying power in an industry where careers are measured more often in months or years than in decades. He's never allowed his talent to become a parody of itself; when he sings of human frailties and strengths there's never a hint in his voice that he is immune to those flaws -- or stronger than his listeners in any way. Therapy is merely the process of learning to accept being human, and there's no better psychology textbook than the blues. Forget Freud, forget Menninger -- let Bobby get inside your head. If you're in pain, he'll let you know you're not alone in no uncertain terms, and that it's going to get better. And if you're in love, Bland's voice has tuned countless pairs of hearts to play a rare duet.

-- Jim Sherman

Bobby "Blue" Bland performs at 8 and 11 p.m. Friday, September 1 at Rockefeller's, 3630 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $13 to $28. Call 869-5483 for info.

Sheryl Crow -- Crow must be a little tuckered out about now -- if not by the rigors of touring for months on end, then by the sobering reality that accompanies backing a handful of come-lately hits from a CD, Tuesday Night Music Club, released two years ago. At a Philadelphia show a few months back, the road-weary singer appeared noticeably tired of her older material, especially "All I Wanna Do," the bubbly throwaway that, with a single live performance at Woodstock '94, revived a stalled, if admirable, debut and spread the word on Crow beyond the VH-1 converted. Granted, it's hard to feel any genuine sympathy for a singer who began her career aerobicizing in uniform behind the likes of Don Henley and Michael Jackson, though Crow is doing her damnedest to blur those iridescent blotches on her resume. And besides, she's sucked down 12-packs with the best of L.A.'s studio hacks. How do you think Tuesday Night Music Club got made? Let's just say it helps to have friends in the right places, and Crow's got plenty of 'em.

In past shows, Crow has twisted arrangements a bit to favor her vastly improved voice and to fend off boredom. So don't be surprised if "Leaving Las Vegas" blasts forth with a bit more soulful vigor than its mechanical studio version, or "Run Baby Run" lodges firmly in the middle of your throat the way all great torch songs should, or the aforementioned "All I Wanna Do" begins as a lazy acoustic rant before it inevitably returns to its old bland self. At Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, with the Rembrandts and Dishwalla, 8 p.m. Friday, September 1. 629-3700. (Hobart Rowland)

Johnnie Johnson -- Credit where credit is due, with interest. That's what's been coming Johnnie Johnson's way the last few years. "Influential" is a considerable understatement in his case -- imagine living in a much duller parallel universe, where in 1952 a hard-rockin' St. Louis pianist didn't hire a guitarist named Chuck Berry, who wrote a tune called "Johnny B. Goode" to thank his benefactor. Johnson's been a key behind-the-scenes player in rock ever since -- his staunchest fans include the likes of Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, and his recent recordings feature everyone from the Kentucky Headhunters to Buddy Guy, Phoebe Snow and John Sebastian. Johnson doesn't just play rollicking boogie-woogie rock and roll piano, he invented the noise, and the world has been a much better place ever since. Johnson will be jamming with our own Bert Wills and band; Houstonian Linda Turek opens. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3916 Washington Avenue, 9:30 p.m. Friday, September 1. 869-

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Hobart Rowland
Jim Sherman