Saying blues fans at Chan’s Eggrolls Jazz and Blues in Woonsocket, Rhode Island got their money’s worth Friday night when Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson played two sets would be technically accurate, but to be honest, they should have paid at least twice as much.
That’s because Johnson and his Magic Rockers – a five-piece collective rounded out with a harp player and a 50-year tenor sax veteran – treated the intimate crowd of 100 or so to two-plus hours of high-energy west side Chicago blues — and tickets for the second set were only $10.
“Smooth as silk,” said John McClarnon, who made the drive from Addelboro, Massachusetts to see the two-time Grammy winner.
McClarnon’s traveling buddy Jeff Waters said “it was a privilege” to see Johnson perform.
Thirty years may have passed since the former Muddy Waters guitarist left the Windy City for a more quaint life in New England, but “Guitar Junior” hasn’t lost his mojo. A former sideman to and friend of the late Magic Sam – a pioneer of the West Side sound – Johnson is still going strong at 73. His playing hasn’t lost a step and his soul-tinged blues singing is as expressive as ever.
A guitarist of Johnson’s caliber could easily resort to fretwork fireworks, playing long drawn-out solos, yet there was none of that during his two sets at Chan’s. His solos, when he decided to veer away from chords and mean riffs, were brief and to the point, usually lasting no more than a minute. It was as if Johnson was teasing the audience, giving them just enough to show them what he can do, but holding back to leave them wanting more.
“I know when to get ’em, when not to get ’em. I’m watching them,” said Johnson during a break between sets.”
The night started off with three blues covers – T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World,” Little Walter’s “Blues With A Feeling” and Lightning Slim’s “Help Me Spend My Gold.” Although Johnson has been recording his own material since the mid-1970s, he clearly loves to pay tribute to those that came before him. Nearly 20 minutes passed before he did an original, the R&B-influenced “Every Woman Needs To Be Loved.”
With a holiday wreath on the wall behind them, and Christmas less than two weeks away, Johnson, fellow guitarist “Big” Jack Ward, ever-head bopping bassist Kenny B, harmonica ace Otis Doncaster, tenor saxophonist Lynwood “Cookie” Cook and drummer Tuffy Kimble kept things upbeat with a seven-minute version of “Merry Christmas Baby.” That was followed by the similarly upbeat “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
However, Johnson would slow things down a bit and the crowd roared its approval when he sang the first line of the Muddy Waters’ classic “Mannish Boy.” The band would transition right into Howlin’ Wolf’s “I’m Leaving You” with no break at all. This was typical throughout the night, one song merging into another. No musical pause, no interludes in the form of stories from Johnson. The night was about the music and maintaining the groove.
The second set included the numbers “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On.” a funky version of “Fever,” and “Groove With Me Tonight,” a tune by The Blues Brothers. Johnson would revert back to the Muddy Waters’ catalog on “Catfish Blues.”
“Got to Have Money,” a Johnson original, came next and James Cotton’s “Aint Doin’ Too Bad” was supposed to be the final song of the night, but the crowd at Chan’s demanded an encore. “You really wanna hear more?” asked Johnson, as he picked up his guitar. “Let me hear ya say, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
The crowd responded as requested, which prompted Johnson and company to put their all into the night‘s closer, “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Johnson clearly loves to play at Chan’s. In fact, he recorded a show there over the summer that will likely become his next live album.
“I like small crowds. I be right at the people,” he said.