As the lights went down at the nearly sold-out House of Blues on Saturday, Robert Johnson's 1936 Delta blues “Cross Roads” came up, and 19-year-old Jake Bugg ambled onto the darkened stage with his two bandmates, greeted by shrieks from all sides.
With his fetching mop top and boyish charm, this JB comes off like the anti-pop Justin Beiber, reviving rock ’n’ roll as sincere but sexy folk music for the long-tailed digital age.
“Definitely not the radio,” said 17-year-old Stoneham resident Caroline Thompson when asked how she'd learned about the English singer-songwriter, whose 2012 debut topped the UK charts but never broke the US top 40. Instead, Thompson and two separately interviewed older male concertgoers credited music festivals. To promote his second album, “Shangri La,” Bugg has performed in Boston several times recently, at successively larger venues.
At the 2,400-capacity House of Blues, the bassist and drummer planted themselves at either end of the large stage and Bugg took the center, clutching a classical acoustic guitar. From the opening Dylan-esque word-spree “There's a Beast and We All Feed It,” the singer's evident absorption in the music captivated the notably diverse crowd, and he won cheers simply by wandering here or glancing there.
The excitement held firm through the first eight numbers, each a striking uptempo amalgam of old folk, skiffle, and rockabilly styles, climaxing with the instantly winning “Two Fingers” and — after Bugg switched to electric guitar — the new “Messed Up Kids.” The mood ebbed during a couple of tender acoustic ballads and the long jag of bluesy and punky numbers that closed the hourlong set. But a three-song encore grabbed it back. It included Bugg’s strong rendition of Neil Young's “My My, Hey Hey,” during which he delivered the line “rock ’n’ roll can never die” as if it were still feasible.
Fronting a black-clad five-piece band, Albert Hammond Jr., of the Strokes, preceded Bugg with cliché-tinged songs and a smug indifference that showed why the claim was ever in doubt.