The history of air guitar has got to include a footnote for Joe Cocker. In the late 1960s, Cocker, a British rock star, was mainly known for two things: A voice that — although agreeable — sounded like the painful gnashing of vocal chords and emotions, and an odd habit of flailing about in concert as if he was playing a guitar that only he could see. For Cocker, this may have been a by-product of a chemical lifestyle, but air guitar, as it’s now known, was destined to become a fixture of rock culture. Today there are international air-guitar contests. You can buy instructional books on the subject.
Cocker plays luxury venues these days and bears small resemblance to the whacked, woolly countenance that fronted a massive Woodstock-era band called Mad Dogs and Englishmen. With Leon Russell as music director, Cocker’s star power at the time was such that he was able to recruit a roster that included Rita Coolidge, Bobby Keys, and Jim Keltner. The band lasted for a year but sold millions of dollars’ worth of albums. They toured the world in a private airliner with “Cocker Power” painted on the fuselage. Essentially a cover band, Mad Dogs lifted old chestnuts like “The Letter” from retirement and gave them new life; their version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” is almost a religious experience.
Cocker reinvented himself in 1980 when he hooked up with the Jazz Crusaders. A few years later he would nab a Grammy for his part in a pop duet. Cocker can sing anything. His gift is in interpretation, and his instincts are perfect. He takes a song you already dig — say, the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” — to a new level.
JOE COCKER: Humphrey’s by the Bay, Saturday, June 6, 7:30 p.m. 619-224-3577. Sold out.