Shades of Gray

When Blues Blast 2000 hits the Valley this weekend, it will offer a bit of the old and a bit of the new, some national acts, some local celebs, and a day of fun in the sun. One of the highlights at this year's festival will be longtime Chicago blues pianist Henry Gray, who will be performing with Bob Corritore's All-Star Blues Revue.

If you haven't caught Gray on one of his many trips to the Valley the past three or four years, now's your chance. Along with PineTop Perkins, Gray is the last of the truly outstanding keysmiths from the great Chicago blues era. In fact, his classic licks helped define the sound. Born in New Orleans, he moved to Chicago in 1946 and "hung out" until '76. Yes, that does mean he's played with most everyone you've ever heard of, from Howlin' Wolf to Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters to Jimmie Reed.

At 75, he's the epitome of "whatever" -- a true Zen blues master. Not long ago, I foolishly asked him who his greatest influences were, expecting to jot down an endless list of names. "My influences are all dead," he replied, "so I guess it's those folks I played with." Of his most memorable experience, he just grinned and said he'd "lived too long to name any one." And if you ask him about his work on some historic tune like "Chicago Bound," or his next new release, you'll likely get a modest, "Yeah, I guess so."

On stage, there are few as pure as Gray. His piano and vocals command a boogie style guaranteed to take you back to the days when Chicago's finest export was king. And though he might not divulge his influences, you can hear his classic key-pounding signature in almost everything Jerry Lee Lewis did. Still active on the circuit, Gray performs regularly at Mardi Gras. Last year he was a featured performer atop one of the floats in the grand parade.

In addition to his appearance at Blues Blast 2000, Gray will be the main act in the more intimate setting of the Rhythm Room for two nights prior to the festival. Can't think of a better teaser.

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David K. Byrne