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FOR JOE COCKER, A NEW LOOK TO THE OLD HITS

Will anybody ever forget seeing Joe Cocker at the first Woodstock Festival back in 1969?

There he was, this wild-eyed Englishman, from all appearances strung out on some very weird substance. He looked almost scary, grabbing at his long, stringy hair and flailing his arms in spastic movements that made him look like a mental patient trying to fight his way out of a straitjacket.

And at the same time, he belted out a remarkable version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" that absolutely brought the house down.

That was then. This is now.

Joe Cocker is 50 years old. His hair is short, his beard neatly trimmed. He moves his fingers like a guitar player, but no longer makes spastic, flailing stage movements. Compared to 1969, he looks like a monk.

But he can still belt them out.

The man who appeared at Shea's Performing Arts Center Tuesday night is older, wiser, calmer and apparently a lot more sober than the madman of Woodstock I. But he still has that soulful voice, a black man's voice locked in the husky body of a former plumber.

Cocker's 95-minute show certainly had its weak points -- including some light disco pop music more suited for a bad Las Vegas act than a Joe Cocker rock show. At times, especially with his new material, it seemed Cocker was just going through the motions.

But the highlights made up for them.

First and foremost was the version of "With a Little Help From My Friends." Cocker has probably done this song at every concert in the past 26 years, yet his performance remains one of the most startling in rock music.

Back in the 1960s, he and his band took a silly Ringo Starr vocal from the "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, gave it a dramatic arrangement featuring explosions of organ, drum and guitar, and made it a rock classic.

If Cocker is tired of the song, he doesn't show it. He still wails his heart out on it. And as long as he keeps doing that, Cocker will always be able to find work in the music business. The song is one of the few that always brings an instant standing ovation.

Luckily for Joe, he has several of those in his repertoire. His two most well-known ballads, "Up Where We Belong" and "You Are So Beautiful," also got big responses from the fortysomething audience that filled about two-thirds of Shea's.

Backed by an energetic young band, Cocker performed 19 songs. He hit the stage looking almost like a proper British businessman, outfitted in a blue blazer, black slacks and black shirt.

But as the night wore on, the big guy was sweating profusely. He quickly dumped the blazer, and he changed his shirt twice.

Cocker tried to showcase his new material, he really did. But most of the new songs -- with the exception of his inspirational new hit, "Have a Little Faith" -- fell flat. A couple were so banal it would have been easier to imagine Julio Iglesias doing them.

The magic came on the old songs, mostly those from Cocker's golden period in the late 1960s, before he started dabbling with middle-of-the-road pop, and before boozing and drugs almost destroyed his career.

On "The Letter," originally recorded by the Box Tops, and Traffic's "Feelin' Alright," Cocker showed how -- with the right arrangement -- he can make any song his own. The voice is not quite what it was when Cocker first recorded those songs, but it is still powerful and distinctive.

While the entire band was solid, guitarist Paul Warren and saxophone player Steve Grove brought down the house with some raging solos.

Randy Newman's sexy "You Can Leave Your Hat On," had a big, boozy arrangement that had people dancing in the balconies, and they were dancing again for "Unchain My Heart," Cocker's rousing tribute to his musical hero, Ray Charles.

Speaking of Ray Charles, it's funny that Cocker doesn't do more of his songs. For a great blues singer, Cocker doesn't sing many blues songs. It would be fascinating to hear him pull an Eric Clapton, and try his hand on some blues standards like "Stormy Monday" or "St. James Infirmary."

Blues fans in the Shea's audience did not leave disappointed, however. A great bonus came their way in the opening act. Keb' Mo' is considered by many as the rising young star of the blues.

Keb' Mo' is the young singer's cool abbreviation for his given name, Kevin Moore. By whatever name, Mo' is a talent.

He's not a blues shouter in the Ray Charles mode. He's a laid-back county-blues singer who plays acoustic guitar and harmonica. He is always unplugged.

Mo's 50-minute set was as smooth and relaxing as a cool glass of wine on a summer evening. At one point, he nearly apologized for performing "City Boy," which he described as a "corny" song he had written.

"City Boy" turned out to be a beautiful, moving ballad about a young man looking for some space in a fast-paced world.

REVIEW
Joe Cocker

Veteran rocker.

Tuesday evening in Shea's Performing Arts Center.

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