Overture Hall was crowded for Oct. 18's Bo Diddley concert. And not just with people, but with ghosts.
The shades of rock, blues and R&B greats hovered over the proceedings. Opener Ruthie Foster name-checked Sam Cooke, Son House and Big Maybelle, then proceeded to channel their spirits in her short, powerful set on acoustic guitar. Next came Alvin Youngblood Hart, a hulking blues-rock guitarist who wailed like Jimi Hendrix and paid his respects to Freddie Fender, Ray Charles and Buddy Holly.
After all these homages to the late great ones, it was thrilling when Bo Diddley came out -- a great one who isn't late. Not by a long shot. At 77, Diddley walks with a limp and sits with his signature rectangular guitar on his lap. Otherwise, he's as compelling a stage presence as he was in the mid-1950s, when he helped invent rock 'n' roll with his famous shave-and-a-haircut beat.
Backed by Hart's solid band, he began with "Bo Diddley," the primal rocker he debuted on "The Ed Sullivan Show" back in 1955. (Sullivan was so appalled by the performance that he banned Diddley from his show, making him one of the first rock 'n' rollers to piss off the older generation.) As the band provided the tribal beat, Diddley shouted the singsong lyrics and coaxed an otherworldly tremolo from his strings.
He continued with more of his classic tunes, from "Who Do You Love" to "I'm a Man" to "Crackin' Up." Scholarly audience members were probably pondering the countless musicians influenced by this material -- Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Muddy Waters, funksters, surf rockers, rappers -- but the rest of us were too busy clapping and laughing. Diddley made sure of that. He hasn't lost his desire to please his fans, and he kept us smiling with spontaneous stories and jokes. I didn't quite catch the point in his digression about airport security, but I didn't care, either. His amiable personality renders just about everything he says amusing.
Foster returned to the stage for the closer, "Hey Bo Diddley," joining Diddley for joyous call-and-response. As the Bo Diddley beat raged, the master stood up and began his slow limp. I thought he was exhausted and planned to drag himself offstage. But no -- he made his way to the drums, picked up a pair of sticks and smacked out a vigorous syncopation on tom-tom.
This was not a ghost. It was a dynamo. Long live rock 'n' roll.