Bobby “Blue” Bland turned 80 this January, and the words of song that once tumbled out of his mouth like beads of mercury, at once liquid and solid, glistening and smooth, are a trifle thinner and drier now. He also increasingly, and needlessly, relies on a vocal device that sounds like he’s clearing his throat.
But some things can’t be eroded, such as Bland’s impeccable sense of phrasing, and his dignified yet amiable carriage onstage. He’s been a sex symbol, a blues-rock star, a road warrior, and now an eminence of blues-soul.
Bland was one of the Beale Streeters, a mid-20th century group from Memphis that included B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Junior Parker and Rosco Gordon. He began as a blues shouter and steadily developed an influentially creamy blend of gospel and blues that we now recognize as the fine distinction between r&b and soul. Bland was, and remains, quintessentially soulful, and yet he didn’t sacrifice the ability to growl, shout, cry and rock out as the situation dictated.
His No. 1 hits are now so old and still-ubiquitous that they are occasionally mistaken for public domain standards: “Farther on Up the Road,” “I Pity the Fool,” “Turn on Your Love Light, “Stormy Monday” and “That’s the Way Love Is.” His influence permeated through sassy soul singers on the southern chitlin circuit and English rockers looking for a genuine emotional toe-hold upon which to frame their guitar licks. That’s why he’s a member of both the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Tonight and tomorrow night he’ll hole up in what is his ideal setting circa 2010, an intimate, urbane club like the Dakota, which feels both luxurious and funky and accommodates tear-drop ballads, sly shuffles and vintage blues showmanship with equal facility. The tickets aren’t cheap, but neither is the caliber of the talent. (Davina and the Vagabonds open.)
Here is a live rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Here is Bland at his coo-crooning best, on “Stormy Monday.”
Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Dakota Jazz Club + Restaurant, 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday nights, March 31 and April 1; tickets $45-$60.