Wicked Rush

Back when responsible adults refrained from using words such as "smart-ass" in the presence of children, a relative of mine affectionately described certain people as "wisenheimers." And while that expression's meaning may have been mangled in translation over the generations, I think it's safe to say that blues bad-boy Bobby Rush qualifies as a wisenheimer. He may be a master songwriter and guitarist, but he's also a clown and a cutup, one of the more riotous road shows in blues today. A true wisenheimer.

Though Rush's foundation is firmly in the Delta, he's opted to build on tradition rather than rely on it, successfully -- at times hilariously -- segueing heavy elements of funk and rap into his mix. His rap workout "I Wanna Get Close to You" could, should, but probably won't teach an entire hip-hop generation about honestly expressed emotion that is far from obscene, insulting or demeaning. Before there was rap and funk, there were funky-ass talking blues that could land on you like a regulation pool table. It's that heritage that Rush mixes with a joyous gospel influence to make some of the most contemporary blues around.

Rush's latest CD, the self-produced One Monkey Don't Stop No Show, demonstrates his novel take on the Delta rule book while at the same time it highlights his strengths as writer, guitarist and harmonica player. It's easy to tell from the lyrical truths expressed in a song such as "People Sure Act Funny" that Rush's mind is as busy as his fingers; meanwhile, the funky thump he returns to the blues fuels a creative energy that sets his music ablaze. When Rush truly gets down and serious, as on "Blues with a Feeling," he lights a torch that reveals the genre to its gloomiest depths.

Still, seeing the humor in life is never beyond Rush's reach. It's his irreverent takes on relationships that make classic tracks such as "Hen Pecked" and "Jezebel" as topical as they are timeless. One Monkey's one fault is that it relies too heavily on programmed keyboard tracks (there are some modern influences that the blues should embrace hesitantly, if at all). But rest assured that Rush's live shows are as unprogrammed as they come.

There's an unfortunate tendency among scholarly blues experts to disdain artists whose blues look to the future and make use of "contaminants" such as funk, soul and rap. Fortunately, there are artists such as Rush who care more about being true to their own musical vision than they do about pleasing the experts -- especially since pleasing the crowd is far more important than fitting any critic's stereotype.

-- Jim Sherman

Bobby Rush performs at 9 p.m. Friday, January 24, at Billy Blues Bar & Grill, 6025 Richmond Avenue. Tickets are $13. For info, call 266-9294.

Albert Hill -- As the pristine arena-rock chorus of Albert Hill's "Northbound" rings out over the stereo speakers, the critic in me withers, to be replaced by my inner rock and roll child. With the sentimental swell of the drippy power ballad "Cisco Kid," grapefruit-size lumps well in the throat, and critical discretion takes a back seat to emotion. Why subject myself to such inner turmoil for the sake of some scrawny quintet from South Carolina? If you have even half a recollection of what .38 Special's "Hold On Loosely" could do to bring a pot-numbed audience's energy level rising to a peak, chances are you'll understand the appeal of Albert Hill. Hailing from Spartanburg, home to Southern rock goddaddies the Marshall Tucker Band, Albert Hill are expert assimilators -- which means they employ just about every cheap trick in the book and still manage to induce goose bumps. The band sounds a little like a redneck version of Live, all blustery, earnest vocals and epic power chords. But its yee-haw factor is such as to render that comparison superficial. It's also tempting to lump Albert Hill into the latest roots-rock movement to succeed in yanking the "roots" right out of the term. But why soil the band's innocence? That's what keeps them honest, and it might not be around for long. Opening for Dah-Veed at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, January 25, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $7. 869-COOL. (Hobart Rowland)

Engelbert Humperdinck -- Aunt Jemima and Engelbert Humperdinck both know one thing better than anyone else: Syrup sells. Toss him into the ring with Tom Jones or Neil Diamond and he might not be a sure bet to triumph, but with his handful of casino-pop classics ("Quando Quando Quando," "A Man Without Love," "Everybody Knows We're Through") and his eight-million-member fan club, he'd certainly hold his own. The guy is certainly durable; destroy everything save that signature mustache, and the mustache would probably grow a new Engelbert. Of course, he also weighs in impressively with his famous three-and-a-half-octave range, placing him on the scale somewhere between Diamond (one octave) and Jones (37 octaves). And say what you will about the man's music, the mustache is serious business. At the Houston Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway, at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 25. Comedian Wayne Cotter opens. Tickets are $25. 728-9172. (Gerard Choucroun)

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Gerard Choucroun
Hobart Rowland
Jim Sherman