Before her short life ended, Janis Joplin made Pearl, the popular soft-shelled pop album that forsook the howling Big Brother and Holding Company guitars that once gave Joplin’s blues so much added primal edge. Joe Cocker never turned his back on screaming electric guitars. At the Santa Barbara Bowl this past Sunday night, the 68-year-old British, white rhythm-and-bluesman begged leave from his rapturous former homies (he lived here a couple of decades ago) with a few choice words: “Keep rocking, Santa Barbara.”
The senior citizen famous for his spastic air guitar deliveries and leather lungs gave us pure symphonic psychedelia, especially with his famous cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Even after all these years, playing the same arrangement classic-rock radio listeners know by heart, it somehow sounded completely fresh. His best trick was revitalizing the overplayed ballad “You Are So Beautiful to Me,” missing the last high note, but stretching the song out and dangerously close to schmaltz. Cocker was often amazing, playing a dozen songs beginning with “Hitchcock Railway” and ending with “Cry Me a River” in a little under 90 minutes.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Huey Lewis, who opened promising to rock our socks off and pull out all the stops. Lewis wisely wraps himself inside a talented band but doesn’t venture far from the recorded words himself. A bona fide hit-factory, Lewis had many fans in attendance, and they all seemed satisfied enough with the show. It’s my hope he returns someday, learning from Cocker that the heart of rock ‘n’ roll is maybe not as important as its soul.