Johnny Rivers is in his 70s, but he knows how to make a crowd feel young again.
Friday night, he and his four-piece band took a crowd at Knuckleheads back several decades, to the music that many of the 900 or so people in the place had grown up with.
He opened with his popular version of LeadBelly’s “Midnight Special,” the first of many songs cast in standard electric blues and the first of many covers and hits. By night’s end, he would deliver versions of songs by Smokey Robinson, Sade, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, the Four Tops and Screaming Jay Hawkins, many of them long-ago hits for Rivers himself.
The 90-minute set veered back and forth between blues numbers, like Dixon’s “The Seventh Son,” “The Snake” and Rivers’ hit version of “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” and pop-soul tunes, like “Tracks of My Tears,” “Mountain of Love” and the always wistful “Summer Rain.”
He also switched from electric to acoustic guitar on a few tunes, most effectively for his tasteful rendition of Sade’s “By Your Side.”
He turned 71 in November, but Rivers hasn’t lost much vigor. Likewise, he got a zesty response all night from fans in the crowd, many of whom, it appeared, were probably teens when Rivers was putting songs like “Mountain of Love” and Berry’s “Memphis” and “Maybellene” onto the Top 40 charts in the early 1960s.
They were enthusiastic throughout the show but gave a couple of songs louder and longer ovations: “Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’), his last Top 10 hit; “Poor Side of Town,” his only No. 1 hit; and “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” during which he orchestrated the loudest and longest of several sing-alongs, reminding the crowd “It’s not I want your lovin’, it’s I need your lovin’,” and when you need something, you go after it with gusto.
He ended with another hit and one of his signature tunes, the TV theme song “Secret Agent Man.” There was no slow dancing during that one. Just a lot of people singing along and dancing like it was 1966 all over again.
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Midnight Special; Chicago Bound; Down at the House of Blues; The Seventh Son; The Snake; Tracks of My Tears; Mountain of Love; Summer Rain; By Your Side; Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’); Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu; I Put a Spell on You; Poor Side of Town; Baby, I Need Your Lovin’; Memphis; Maybellene; Secret Agent Man.