Johnny Rivers proved several things at his Riverwind concert Saturday evening with the primary point being that he can still rock 'n' roll at age 72.
Another is that he can still sell show tickets. Aside from University of Oklahoma's fine concert halls, Riverwind’s 1,500 seats Showplace Theater is the best place in Norman to hear live music. It’s bigger than a club and smaller than an arena. The room appeared to be near capacity with an audience of the expected demographic. There was a sprinkling of young people but the crowd was mostly near the same age as Rivers.
There was no opening band. Rivers took the stage with no introduction precisely at the designated concert start-time. His all-male band consisted of an electric bass guitar player, keyboardist, drummer on full kit and a fellow playing miscellaneous percussion such as tambourine and maracas. There was no back-up guitarist; Rivers played his guitar-heavy rock 'n' roll set straight-up like a champ. Unlike some “legends of rock” players, Rivers appeared to be enjoying himself. There was an attractive vibrancy and obvious interest in what he was doing. He was decidedly not just going through the motions. Rivers paid attention to his enthusiastic audience and a mutual dynamic built as the concert progressed. His show was reminiscent of another stellar rock performance by Joan Jett at the Oklahoma State Fair several years ago. There was the same look of satisfaction in Rivers eyes at one point when he gazed into the crowd between songs.
Early on he played “Midnight Special” which is his original song and was the theme for the 1970s era late night live concert TV show. Rivers didn’t speak too much or too little between numbers. There’s been an annoying trend in the last few years for some musicians to tell interminable stories between songs. This seems to be particularly common among legacy acts but happily it wasn’t the case with Rivers. He spoke a few words before songs and introduced the individual members of his band late in the set. Although Rivers undoubtedly has plenty of stories from back in the day he mercifully didn’t tell any of them. It was a highly professional performance and probably similar to all the ones he’s been playing throughout his entire 50-plus year career.
One notable and welcome exception to banter between songs was Rivers’ comments before playing “The Seventh Son.” It was a top ten hit for him in 1965 but he didn’t write the tune. Rivers admirably gave credit from the stage to author and blues titan Willie Dixon (1915-1992). “The Seventh Son” is significant to Rivers’ career not just because it was a Billboard hit. The song is a connection to his southern heritage. Born in New York as John Ramistella, his family moved to New Orleans when he was a kid. The African-American music scene there had a profound influence on him. Many of Rivers’ money-makers were covers of songs made popular by black artists. He played most of these at Riverwind including Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” The set was predominantly up-tempo with just a sprinkling of ballads that included “Poor Side of Town” and “Baby I Need Your Lovin’.” Many in the audience were singing along to these hits that are still played in frequent rotation on golden oldies radio.
Despite his aged attendees, Rivers did a good job whipping up rock 'n' roll show excitement. However it never quite got to the point of people jumping out of their seats and dancing in the aisles. There was plenty of seat dancing but at no point was the joint in danger of exploding into an out-of-control rock riot that would have necessitated calling in the National Guard. There were of course some women on their feet bouncing booty but no brassieres or panties hit the stage. Concert length was just right, not too short and not too long at approximately 80 minutes with no intermission. Fellow Louisianan Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”) is remarkable for having played a Riverwind show a few years back at about the same age that was a stingy 25 minutes long. Rivers and band left the stage and returned immediately for an encore of his signature song “Secret Agent Man.”
Johnny Rivers (photo provided)