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2005-04-27

BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue

The 32nd Annual Adams Avenue Roots Festival goes down this weekend in Normal Heights, and this year's line-up ranks among the estimable event's best ever. The highlight has to be wizened bluesman Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, who for reasons known only to God and/or Satan, somehow isn't dead yet. The soon-to-be-90-year-old singer/guitarist hung out with and learned at the feet of Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and Charlie Patton back in the '20s (to name but a few of the mythic figures who've populated Edwards' extended life); was first recorded himself in the '40s when discovered by noted musicologist Alan Lomax; narrated a mesmerizing autobio at age 82, and continues to play, sing and orate to this day, as a sort of a Yoda-like font of American music, history and culture. Along with the similarly aged, experienced and marginally better-known (and certainly more versatile) Robert Lockwood, Jr., Edwards remains the last active bluesman of his generation; history on the hoof; and the opportunity to see him live should absolutely not be missed by any self-respecting blues fan or Americana buff, as this will likely be the last chance you'll get.

Co-headlining the event is veteran blues and folk singer/interpreter Odetta. Active since the '50s and a looming influence on the folk revival of the early '60s, Odetta's rich, resonant, emotive voice remains vital as ever, evidenced by superb recent CDs such as "Blues Everywhere I Go" and a great Leadbelly tribute album, "Looking For A Home." Fellow '60s folk scenester Judy Henske, who recently performed with Odetta and considers her an early role model, remarks, "Odetta's voice is like listening to Ben Webster playing saxophone."

While all performers at the Roots Fest are worth a listen, other personal, perennial faves booked again this year include locals Los Alacranes, Tomcat Courtney, the Golden Hill Ramblers and Robin Henkel. For more information, check the Roots Fest's website at http://www.normalheights.org/ events/rootsfestival/2005/.

Levi Dexter could be a prime candidate for the "Where Are They Now?" files - if more than a few dozen aging rockabilly fans actually remembered who the effervescent Englishman was in the first place. Largely forgotten since his late-'70s popular prime, Dexter was among the first generation of neo- rockabilly performers; a contemporary of such pre-Stray Cats revivalists as Robert Gordon, Billy Zoom, Johnny Legend and Shakin' Stevens. While the eternally-teen-voiced Dexter can't lay claim to possessing the brawny pipes of a Gordon or the razzle dazzle guitar talent of a Zoom, he was, nonetheless, a significant second-generation bopper; one of the few guys that kept 'billy breathing when it was near- universally (and wrongly) viewed as little more than goofy, nostalgic, Sha Na Na-worthy novelty genre. Over the course of nearly three decades, with bands like Levi & the Rockats, Levi Dexter & the Ripchords and Levi Dexter & Magic, our boy cut some marvelously manic sides -- "All Thru The Night," "I'm Gone," "21 Days in Jail" and a white-hot take on Marvin Rainwater's "Hot 'N' Cold" among the best. Dexter performs at the Casbah on Saturday night, opening for Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys; quite a lovely bill.

Legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson passed away on April 13 in his native St. Louis; he was 80. Best known as long-time sideman to Chuck Berry, Johnson in fact was originally a bandleader himself when he hired the young guitarist in 1952; Berry subsequently became the group's frontman, and the two remained partners for the next 28 years. Although Berry was the star of the show, Johnson's frenetic piano playing was an essential component of Berry's sound, which many believe was the template for rock & roll itself.

Johnson sued Berry in 2000, claiming he was owed royalties for 52 songs he co-wrote with his partner but never received credit or payment for; the suit was later dismissed. Still, Berry had nothing but kind words for Johnson, who had released several albums under his own name in recent years, worked with the likes of Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Aerosmith and George Thorogood, and was inducted into the Rock

& Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001. Berry eulogized Johnson to CNN as "the man with the dynamite right hand... my piano player who no one else has come near. He gave me a break...I stole the group from Johnnie.... [but] Johnnie and I have always been friends."

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> By Buddy Blue

From the dawn of recorded music until not so very long ago, the novelty song had a place in the hearts and on the charts of America. From turn-of-the-century stars like Cal Stewart and Bert Williams up through more recent acts like Frank Zappa and Weird Al Yankovic, this country has a long tradition of embracing performers whose muse incorporated humor and satire.

We've sooo gotten over it. In modern, me-so-punk/bling-bling pop culture, novelty music is 23 skidoo as a Henny Youngman violin solo.

Don't try telling this to Dr. Demento, though. For the past 35 years, the Doc has waged a crusade of musical silliness through his popular radio show, authoring books, magazine articles and liner notes, and compiling more than a dozen albums of novelty tunes.

"Perhaps nobody is a household name anymore, but there's still people out there," says the eternally sunny Doc. "There's a guy called The Great Luke Ski who does hip hop parodies, and he's pretty popular. There's another guy called Logan Whitehurst that does the kind of music that falls between the cracks these days. As long as anybody's doing something that's amusing, I'm willing to listen."

He's also willing to play their records, and Dr. Demento will be doing just that and more when he appears Saturday night at California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

"We call it 'The Festival Of Dementia,'" he says. "It's like my radio show, but I play most of the music on video -- everything from Weird Al to some older things by people like Spike Jones. I also tell more stories behind the songs, and I play a segment of [risqué] songs I can't play on the radio. It's a lot of fun."

While fun is Dr. Demento's preferred prescription, beneath his top hat, tuxedo and white whiskers beats the heart of one serious musicologist. Born Barret Hansen in Minneapolis in 1941, the little doc-ling started collecting records at age 12 and never looked back.

In college, Hansen became manager of a campus radio station before graduating as a classical music major. Later, at UCLA, Hansen wrote his master's thesis on the evolution of R&B, while making his L.A. radio debut on KPFK-FM.

In the '60, Hansen roadied for rock groups Canned Heat and Spirit, then went to work compiling reissues for seminal R&B label, Specialty Records. It was in 1970, while working for Specialty, that Hansen became Dr. Demento; KPPC-FM asked him to host a weekly program of rock & roll rarities; Hansen assumed his persona and the Dr. Demento Show went on to become one of the most popular syndicated radio shows of the next two decades.

"When the show started, the idea was to be an off-the-beaten-track oldies show," recalls Double D. "I'd pick songs the Rolling Stones had covered and play the originals by Muddy Waters and people like that. But from the beginning, I'd also play one or two novelty records like 'Purple People Eater' or 'Monster Mash' or 'They're Coming To Take Me Away,' and I quickly found that those records got more reaction from the listeners than anything else, so that gradually took over the show."

While The Dr. Demento Show's popular peak is in the rear view mirror along with novelty music in general, DD is still at it today, hosting his program for XM Satellite Radio, and he remains in demand as a speaker, commentator and musical scholar.

"You know, within the span of just the last few months, I was in three documentaries," he says. "One was about Wild Man Fischer, one about Jandek, and I'm still waiting for the third one to come out, which is about Country Dick and the Beat Farmers, as I'm sure you know."

Small worlds-ville: this writer was a member the Beat Farmers, and our Dick-crooned ditty, "Happy Boy," remains a staple of the Demento show 20 years after its release.

But Doc, why don't you play some Farmers tunes I wrote - hey, a fella could use the royalty money. "Well, I do play 'Lakeside Trailer Park' a few times a year," he tells me. Looks like I won't be retiring any time soon, but bless the good Doctor for keeping humor in music

alive at a very unfunny time in history all the same. Dr. Demento, April 30 at California Center for the Arts, Escondido, 340 N. Escondido Blvd, 8 PM, $25 -

$35, (800) 988-4253. Also see www.drdemento.com.

Sidebar: DR. DEMENTO'S TOP FIVE NOVELTY ARTISTS

WEIRD AL YANKOVICH Weird Al is miles in front of everybody else in terms of the number of requests I get for him and the number of hits he's had on the show.

TOM LEHER He's probably the most brilliant musical satirist that America has ever produced. In the early '50s he made an album that was the most successful DIY recording prior to the modern time. It sold about 400,000 units and was the best-selling comedy album of the '50s.

ODGEN EDSL His song, "Dead Puppies Aren't Much Fun," is the Number One most requested song on my show of all time.

BARNES & BARNES Barnes & Barnes is a guy named Robert Haimer and the former child actor Bill Mumy [who played Will Robinson on TV's "Lost In Space"]. They'd have to be up there on the strength of "Fish Heads" if nothing else; that's my Number Two most requested song of all time.

FRANK ZAPPA He was a brilliant musician who created outrageous humor as a way of luring impressionable young people into his concerts. Whatever his motive was, his music is great.