Officially celebrating his 30th anniversary of engagements on and near the Sunset Strip (Gazzarri’s mainly, though several hit albums beginning in 1964 were advertised as recorded at the Whisky a Go-Go), Johnny Rivers pulled into the House of Blues on Thursday night for two lengthy sets of new songs and old favorites, done up in pure Rivers style.
What that means is, that they were an intelligently chosen mix of the familiar and the just plain good, played by an excellent band and sung by a man with a sure sense of the right material, a clear voice and diction, an instinct for dance grooves and a distinctive guitar style. Thirty years down the road there’s nobody who does Johnny Rivers’ act better than Rivers, himself.
Two sets were performed, both recorded for Rivers’ own Soul City imprint (though likely available to some canny label for manufacturing and distribution). The first show essentially was acoustic, with the band seated; for the second set Rivers stood and everybody plugged in. Between them, a full dozen of his chart hits were performed — from 1964’s “Memphis” to 1977’s “Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’)”– plus lots more.
The band featured so many guitars that the first set looked like a New Christy Minstrels reunion. For the second show pianist Skip Edwards added organ to his arsenal, male singers Herb Pedersen and Oren and Luther Waters were joined by three women and Joe Sublett performed on tenor saxophone.
Notable among the material in the acoustic portion of the show were versions of Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” the country standard “Truck Driving Man” and the Arthur Cruddup-penned Elvis hit “That’s All Right, Mama” (find someone else who can put those four into a set and have them make sense!); the overall feeling was more comfortable than involving or exciting. A highlight of the first set was an obscure older song, not previously recorded by Rivers, “I Wonder Where the Lions Are.”
Songs in the far more uptempo plugged-in portion included versions of R&B and blues tunes including Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind,” Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone” and Mose Allison’s “Don’t Start Me to Talking,” plus Rivers’ own hits including a medley of “Secret Agent Man” and “Seventh Son”; Motown hits “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Baby, I Need Your Loving” (with the audience heartily singing the background vocals on the latter); and several more Chuck Berry songs –“Oh, Carol”, “Little Queenie” and “Maybelline.” (In the first set, he’d done an acoustic reading of “You Never Can Tell.”)
Happily for Rivers, no doubt, some of the heartiest response came for his own composition, “Poor Side of Town.”
Audience response was measured though respectful for the first set, and much more pronounced for the hit-filled second half.