Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Johnny Rivers - Live At The Arcada Theatre

Neither one of us had ever seen Johnny Rivers perform live before ... for whatever reason, he just doesn't seem to get up Chicago way very often ... in fact, I can't even remember the last time he was here! ... so Frannie and I were REALLY looking forward to seeing this show.  (Many thanks again to Ron Onesti for his generous hospitality in allowing us to do so ... and from some GREAT seats, by the way!)  

In another stroke of booking genius, Ron hired The Cadillac Casanovas as Johnny's opening act ... and they did a VERY successful job of warming up the crowd and getting them ready for this '60's recording legend.  (We last saw The Cadillac Casanovas when they opened for Matthew and Gunnar Nelson's show, "Ricky Nelson Remembered" ... and they were SO good that night, that The Nelson Brothers invited them back out to finish up the show with them!  I've been a fan ever since and have proudly been telling anybody who will listen that you've just GOT to go check these guys out.)  For the record, you'll have another chance to do so on December 5th ... Ron Onesti has just hired The Cadillac Casanovas to open a Rockabilly Christmas Show that will also feature the return of Matthew and Gunnar Nelson as well as The Cowsills, one of the acts I had to miss this year due to other commitments.  (They played to RAVE reviews the night they opened for Micky Dolenz.)  This should be one INCREDIBLE show ... so you'll want to get your tickets early for this one!  

Anyway, more on The Cadillac Casanovas later (you can read our previous review here:  
Click here: Forgotten Hits: We Had One Hell Of A Rock And Roll Weekend! ... and check out a brand new feature on the band this Thursday) ...    

But for now, let's get down to The Man Of The Hour, Johnny Rivers.  

Rivers built his career on his live performances at California Hot Spots like The Whisky A Go-Go ... his first few album releases were recorded live in concert as he built a tremendous following amongst the young dance crowd and celebrities who frequented these establishments with great regularity back in the day.  As such, there really shouldn't be a more seasoned performer on the circuit ... but the show certainly didn't start out that way. 

Right off the bat, Rivers had some "technical difficulties" with his amp, which he became noticeably agitated and vocal about.  My first thought was, "Oh boy, here we go ... before he even sings his first song, he's already in a bad mood" ... and it did look that way for a little while.  That first song was an almost unrecognizable version of "Midnight Special" in which Johnny completely changed up the melody so that it sounded nothing at all like the hit record he had in the '60's ... or the theme to the late-night television show it later served as.  (Which made my SECOND thought "Oh boy, he's going to do all new versions of the songs we came to hear.")  That was followed by a couple more rather obscure choices after which the audience complained that they couldn't hear Johnny's voice ... the music was too loud.  (It was ... or Johnny's mike simply wasn't turned up enough ... but he was EXTREMELY difficult to hear.) 

Rivers again seemed to take the offensive, this time stating that he was "a little hoarse" but would "try to turn down the music a little" ... which immediately sparked my THIRD thought ... "Oh shit, now we've pissed him off again!"  (lol)  Instead of taking the initiative and having the sound guy turn up his vocals, he indicated that he wouldn't be putting forth any more effort into tonight's performance and would turn the music down instead ... again, not a good start to a show we had long been looking forward to seeing.  

His fourth song was the Al Wilson hit "The Snake", a record that Rivers produced for his Soul City Record Label back in 1968 ... and a Forgotten Hits favorite.  Johnny seemed a lot more animated on this one ... but a lot of that was lost again as you really couldn't hear the vocals. 

And then suddenly Moses stepped out and parted The Red Sea ... and all was right in the world again.  Johnny kicked things into gear with his 1965 Hit, "Seventh Son" (which ironically peaked at #7 on the charts) and the crowd was quickly up on its feet.  Without question in my mind, THIS is where the concert began Saturday Night!  The vocal was clean and clear, PERFECTLY mixed with the music and the crowd went wild.  From this point on, Johnny Rivers sounded like Johnny Rivers again ... and we knew we were going to have a good time the rest of the way. (How unfortunate that things had to begin on such a low note as once it appeared Johnny was having fun on stage, it was infectious enough to take the rest of us all along for the ride!)

I won't say there weren't a few other instances that fell flat ... for one thing, Johnny's back-up band is pretty sparse, and didn't contribute much in the way of background vocals all night long.  (At one point Johnny again instructed the sound engineer "Can somebody PLEASE turn on this man's mike?")  And it was RIDICULOUSLY hot in there that night, something else that Rivers wouldn't let go unnoticed with biting comments like "Hey Ron ... time to put another log on the air conditioner" and, at one point, asking the audience if they'd be willing to "take up a collection and buy this place some air conditioning."  (To be fair, this has been an ongoing issue at The Arcada on these hot summer nights ... it's a very OLD theater and as such, heats up VERY quickly ... especially with a near sell-out crowd on hand ... but if the artists themselves start to complain about being uncomfortable or start refusing to come back to perform, then it's ALSO an issue that needs to be addressed.)   

On the other hand, Johnny did have some fun, light-hearted moments, too ... like when he introduced the members of the band and got to the drummer and said "I've known this man since the day he was born" ... which was true, because Johnny's drummer was his son Michael Rivers, who's been drumming since the age of six!  The band is rounded out by Skip Edwards on keyboards (who really did an excellent job of filling in the gaps as Johnny's songs tended to be quite "produced" back in the day, making the lack of background vocals ... especially those of the female persuasion ... and instrumentation seem a little weak at times during his live show), Darrell Cook on bass and Keith Edwards on percussion.  Johnny also joked that a good chunk of the audience was probably there that night just to see how much older he looked.  (Actually, he looked pretty good ... check out the photos below taken by Official Arcada Photographer Luciano Bilotti!)  

When Johnny stuck to the hits, the crowd responded with pure enthusiasm.  An extended four-song acoustic set lost a few of us ... we expect an artist to mix in some newer or alternate material now and then ... but four songs in a row of unfamiliar material is asking a lot for an audience to retain interest.  I will say this, however ... on more than one occasion Saturday Night, he brought the crowd back up to their feet when he went from something "off the list" to a track like "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Flu" and "I Put A Spell On You", both performed to perfection (and to a rousing response). 

Rivers scored 21 Top 40 Hits between 1964 and 1978 ... and over the course of the evening I'd have to say he performed about half of them ... and each and every time he did, the audience rallied around him once again to show their support.  

He took a little bit of flack back in the '60's in that most of his hits were simply remakes and covers of previously recorded songs.  In fact, the one time he DID decide to write a song for himself, it went straight to #1 ... Johnny's only #1 Record was "Poor Side Of Town", written with Producer Lou Adler.  Other than that, his hit repertoire consists of a lot of Motown and Chuck Berry remakes ... he was kind of like the original Linda Ronstadt ... before there was a Linda Ronstadt!!! 

His four-song encore was outstanding ... "Route 66", "Memphis", "Maybelline" and, of course, "Secret Agent Man" insured that we'd be on our feet from start to finish.  (In that heat, he probably regretted his decision to go out and sign CD's for the crowd after the show ... but he's got a couple of new CD's to plug and this is the way to do it.  Both are also available through his website:  Click here: Johnny Rivers - Official Website - Live at Cache Creek). 

Checking the site, it looks like there are not a lot more shows lined up ... as I said, he doesn't seem to perform much these days (although the couple in front of us told us that this was their SEVENTH Johnny Rivers concert, including one recently in Michigan [where they live, meaning they made about a 3 1/2 hour drive to the Arcada show!] as well as a recent 70th Birthday Party Concert held for Johnny in New York City ... which kind of surprised me since he's actually 72!!!)  If you've ever wanted to see him live, do it NOW as I'm not sure how many more shows he's going to do.  (I will say this ... once all the bugs were worked out Saturday Night, Rivers genuinely seemed to be having a good time up on stage.  Had it been about 20 degrees cooler, he might have played another half hour, giving us some of those OTHER hits we missed out on during this particular show!) 

Overall rating (on a scale of 1-10):  5 

Concert Highlights:  Seventh Son; Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu; I Put A Spell On You; Mountain Of Love; Summer Rain; Memphis; Secret Agent Man

Could Have Been Better:  The Tracks Of My Tears (although this one stuck in my head all night long!); Baby I Need Your Lovin'; Poor Side Of Town (and all of these weaknesses I would attribute to the lack of sufficient musical and vocal backing)

Sorely Missed:  Swayin' To The Music; Where Have All The Flowers Gone; Help Me Rhonda