Can You Hear It Now?

Hot blues, smooth jazz, and vintage rockers

Despite spotty ticket sales — gangbusters for some shows, slack for others — the Verizon Music Festival keeps Tampa Bay on its itinerary for the third straight year. Truthfully, most promoters would have cut the cord by now, so let's hope this installment signals the festival's long-term commitment to the Bay area.

For '03, the organizers have moved the event from late fall to late spring (in case you're wondering why the last Verizon fest was just six months ago). The event kicked off on Wednesday with Norah Jones and Gillian Welch at Clearwater's Coachman Park. Here's a look at another eclectic and mostly exciting lineup. All tickets are available through Ticketmaster. —Eric SniderBo Diddley/Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown/KoKo Taylor Producers have dubbed this show "Year of the Blues," but it could more accurately be called "220 Years of the Blues," to reflect the combined ages of these venerable artists. Bo Diddley, born Ellas McDaniel in McComb, Miss., on Dec. 30, 1928, is widely regarded as one of the prime architects of rock 'n' roll. He was probably the most blues-oriented of an elite cartel that included Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and a handful of others. With his trademark square guitar, Diddley is probably best known for the syncopated "Bo beat" that drove his most popular songs. At 79, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown would have to be considered one of the first fusion artists. Louisiana-born and Texas-bred, he has for decades combined blues, R&B, country, Western swing, jazz and Cajun into a lively concoction. He sings, plays guitar and fiddle, and is rarely seen without a cowboy hat perched atop his head. KoKo Taylor, 67, is known for a voice that can chip concrete. Often called the "Queen of the Blues," she was discovered in '62 by legendary bluesman Willie Dixon. Her most renowned song is 1966's "Wang Dang Doodle." (7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 12, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa; tickets cost $35, $25 and $15, and are all two-for-one)

The Rippingtons feat. Russ Freeman w/Michael Franks Since 1987, the Rippingtons have been something of a farm system for smooth jazz talent. David Benoit, Kenny G, Kim Stone, Steve Reid and Brandon Fields have been members. The one constant has been leader Russ Freeman, a keyboardist, guitarist, arranger, composer and producer who masterminds the group's easy-listening, melodic sound. With his impossibly breathy voice and heavy-lidded presence, Michael Franks seems ready to lapse into a coma at any time. He makes Perry Como look like Johnny Rotten. Franks enjoyed crossover popularity in the late '70s/early '80s with such conversational, quasi-jazz albums as Tiger in the Rain and Burchfield Nines. (8 p.m. Friday, June 13, Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; $39.75 and $35)

Roy Hargrove's RH Factor After being entrenched in acoustic jazz for more than a decade, trumpeter Roy Hargrove stepped out this year with a crossover album called RH Factor: Hard Groove. The favored horn man of such hip-hop and nu-soul heavies as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Common called in a few chits for the project, enlisting guest artists galore. In all, more than 30 musicians contributed to Hard Groove, a rather schizophrenic mix of funk, smooth jazz and hip-hop. During a brief, perfunctory interview with Hargrove a scant nine days before his local debut, I began by asking about the touring incarnation of his RH Factor band. "I don't know," he said dismissively. "It's to be announced. There won't be as many as on the album." Gee, Roy, you're really not bringing down 30 players? I asked him if he might be cutting things a little close, to which he responded, "We'll get together and rehearse before the gig, then go do the gig." (8 p.m. Friday, June 13, Skipper's Smokehouse, Tampa; $20 adv., $25 day of show)

Joe Cocker w/Roger McGuinn Spastic, sandpaper-throated Joe Cocker has stood the test of time with his timeless take on R&B. Raised working-class in Sheffield, England, he toiled as an apprentice gas fitter by day and sang under the name Vance Arnold at night. (Can we agree that reverting to his real name was for the better?) Over the years, his sound became more middle-of-the-road, as evidenced by "Up Where We Belong," a duet with Jennifer Warnes that was the love theme from An Officer and a Gentleman. The song reached No. 1 in August 1982. Cocker last tasted chart success in '89 with "When the Night Comes," but has maintained a solid presence on the performing arts hall circuit. He'll be joined by Roger McGuinn, one of the founders of folk-rock with The Byrds. The singer/songwriter/guitarist called Indian Rocks Beach home for several years, and even enlisted a local band, The Headlights, to back up his unsuccessful early '90s comeback. (8 p.m. Saturday, June 14, Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; $45.75 and $39.75, $70 tickets sold out)

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy The neo-swing thing is well over, but that doesn't mean it's no longer fun. BBVD enjoyed a good round of commercial success in the latter half of the '90s. Whatever your take was on the jumpin' jive revival, it was always clear that this band was in it for the love of the music, not as a mere marketing position. Hey, that zoot suit and spats are begging to be freed from the mothballs. (8:30 p.m. Saturday, June 14, Jannus Landing, St. Petersburg; $15 adv., $20 day of show)

Acoustic Syndicate w/Theresa Andersson The name Acoustic Syndicate might conjure up an aggregation of pastoral pluckers or bluegrass purists. Neither is remotely accurate. The quartet's music is propulsive in a jazz-fusion sort of way, with underpinnings of jazz-grass, pop and singer/songwriter fare. The music of Swedish vocalist/violinist Theresa Andersson has been called "groovy roots-pop." (8 p.m. Saturday, June 14, Skipper's Smokehouse, Tampa; $10 adv., $13 day of show)

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