Johnny Rivers in the Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun, Saturday, June 18, 2011
In his much-anticipated return to the Wolf Den, Johnny Rivers visited from the West Coast on June 18 to rock the house like it was the Whisky A Go Go in 1964 and bring along more of his later hits, some rockin' blues and even some new tunes. Rivers has long been a favorite of mine. I love so many of his songs: the fun party jams, the great ballads and songs that just so fit the times, like Summer Rain, are always a joy to hear. And the man knows how to deliver a crowd-pleasing set. I have a special memory of a Johnny Rivers show and I thought about it often during the week leading up to the concert. It was the first show I ever saw at the Wolf Den, probably 2001, before I began writing. I was supposed to go to a company party that night and was dragging my feet getting ready because what I really wanted was to venture into this Wolf Den place and see Johnny. I really needed to go to the work function but as it got later, I wasn't moving and was getting crabby. Finally, I said to heck with it and went to Mohegan Sun. I remember the thrill of walking in there and seeing Rivers take the stage so close and play all his great hits I've always loved. It was a concert I'll never forget.
This time, with the band playing the James Bond 007 theme, the Secret Agent Man strolled onstage and started it off with a HOT rockin' version of Midnight Special, the blues standard he helped popularize which was the theme for the late-night concert TV show of the 70s and early 80s. It was very different from his original, rockabilly take and was an early indication of how he was going to be adventurous on this night.
Johnny, who's currently rededicating his interest in the blues, played a lot of it early in his set. Although he plays a mean guitar, he was helped out by a special guest appearance in the band from guitar master Kal David from Chicago. The two scorched through (appropriately enough) Chicago Bound with Daniels on lead, Down At The House Of Blues and the easy blues styling of Can I Change My Mind that featured an organ solo by keyboard player Skip Edwards.
Above: Darrell Cook on bass and guest guitarist Kal David flank guest vocalist Laurie Bono as the three share backup vocals. Below: Keyboardist Skip Edwards, who's worked with Johnny Rivers for 37 years, and Jimmy Christie on drums.
The blues tunes perfectly set up Seventh Son, Johnny's wildly fun romp on the Willie Dixon classic that was a hit for him in 1965 from his second Whisky A Go Go album. Rivers has an uncanny knack for recognizing great songs and great writers (nurtured, he says, from his early days in New York's famed Brill Building and in Nashville) and an even better sense of how to make those songs work within his own style. And lest we forget the New York born rocker was raised in Louisiana, he then slithered the set along with The Snake, a New Orleans-style, storytelling blues.
While the blues tunes were awesome, the crowd was ready for some hits, and Rivers unloaded with three big ones in a row, starting with his hit cover of the Smokey Robinson classic, Tracks of My Tears which got a huge ovation upon hearing its signature riff so beautifully played on his guitar. Picking up his famed, red Gibson ES-335 hollow body, he went into Mountain Of Love, his rockabilly classic, woven into a medley with the standard Kansas City that featured a wicked solo from Johnny. Then came one of my all-time favorite songs, Summer Rain, a tune he reminded us he performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, which he helped found in 1967.
Turning to an acoustic, he played one of the four 'bonus' tracks from his new Greatest Hits and More CD called New Home, a song from a mature songwriter who knows his craft, that advises the listener to "keep your feet on solid ground, you'll be high and dry." It reminded me of the vintage folk rock sounds of The Band. Would like to hear more of this new stuff. Speaking of staying high and dry, Johnny reached into the New Orleans songbook again for another 'more' track from the new disc, his cover of House Of The Rising Sun, with Rivers as a soulful troubadour and the band taking an interesting, jazzy jaunt in between the verses and keyboardist Skip Edwards sounding like the Doors' Ray Manzarek on the B3.
Deep in the show, with lotsa hits left to go. "This is a song we don't do very often these days," Rivers announced and I was surprised to hear that the song was Slow Dancing (Swaying To The Music), his last Top 10 hit in 1977 which is an enduring classic. Picking up his trusty red Gibson, he took us back to New Orleans again with his rollicking Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu then the sweet-sounding Poor Side of Town, a song he wrote that signalled a change for him from go-go rock 'n roller to balladeer in 1966, charting a whole new, successful course for his career. Like on Summer Rain, Edwards' keyboard work supplied the stripped-down band with the lush strings that were on the wonderful studio recording.
"Let's do this uptempo," he cued the band, leading into Robert Parker's feisty, fun Barefootin', another Louisiana classic that perfectly fits Rivers' style. Uptempo? Is there any other way to play Barefootin'?
Johnny showed his soulful side again with his hit version of the Temptations Baby, I Need Your Lovin' and his engaging side when leading a crowd singalong of the hook. When it was the girls' turn, they did fine and (as usual) the men sucked. Rivers coaxed a more powerful voice from the guys by reminding us of the difference between "want" and "need." "The song isn't Baby, I WANT Your Lovin', it's Baby, I NEED Your Lovin'!" And when you need something, you go for it totally, completely, which is how we sang it the next time through.
The fabulous, gut-bucket rhythm guitar and clap-along rhythm of Memphis, the song that made Rivers a star, closed out the show. Johnny and the band returned for his other Chuck Berry classic, Maybelline, and all pistons were firing, with Kal David playing a blistering solo. The knockout show ended with Johnny's signature song, Secret Agent Man.
An incredible show by one of the greatest in rock 'n roll. Why this man is not in the Hall Of Fame, I don't understand. He showed on this night all the reasons he's one of the greats and that he's still growing as an artist and writer, is growing in new directions and willing to take chances with his classic hits and still can please a crowd like few other performers in rock 'n roll.