Syl Johnson - SPACE, Evanston, Ill. - Nov. 21, 2012
By Steve Sharp
A rare performance by Chicago hard soul/blues legend Syl Johnson these days is not to be missed. With that in mind, this reviewer and a friend ventured south down Interstate 94 about 80 miles from Milwaukee to Evanston, Ill. to the wonderful club SPACE near the Northwestern University campus.
Not long after our arrival, Syl came slinking out of his dressing room wearing some sort of a pseudo-military uniform. He apparently deemed himself worthy of a sergeant's rank, because that was the patch on his arm. His band followed behind. It consisted of two female background singers; three horn players, among them the great baritone sax-player Willie Henderson; a cool old Hammond B-3 keyboard player; drummer; bass player and guitarist — all veterans of Chicago soul music, some dating to the 1960s.
The band took the stage and goofed around, getting plugged-in and situated. They seemed very up for the show and loose. Syl then started talking about the history of soul in an initially disjointed rap that seemed to indicate the night had potential to go off the tracks before even starting. After 5 minutes of this "summary" of his career, Johnson introduced the entire band before they hit their first note. Underneath his military jacket, Syl wore a black T-shirt with white writing that asked the infamous question from his past, "Is it Because I'm Black?" Johnson's head was adorned in a black do-rag and black leather baseball cap.
History lesson and introductions over, Syl let the music finally bust loose. In all my life of countless shows, I have never gotten the shivers like I got them from the first notes that band hit. They were so hard, tight and funky, and SPACE sounded so good, this reviewer almost melted off the barstool. From there Syl flawlessly delivered his hard Chicago soul classics from the 1960s such as "C'mon, Sock it to Me" and "Is It Because I'm Black?" He then traveled down to Memphis to touch on his HI Records years with Willie Mitchell, including his composition "Take Me To the River."
Syl's quirks manifested themselves throughout the first set. His guitar strap came undone and it took him quite a while, and lot of ridiculous fiddling around, to get it back on. He then said he had only two CDs left to sell that night and sat on one of them while he played. He was just a little ... strange, yet funny, lovable and engaging.
At one point after the intermission, during "Monkey Time," a blond girl in the front row accidentally shook her long hair into the candle on her table and her locks went up in a ball of fire three-feet high. Some guys around her put her hair out and everyone was in shock. Most thought the woman would be maimed for life and that the show was most certainly over. Nope, the band didn't miss a beat, although the female vocalists looked stunned and very concerned. When the band realized the woman was truly OK, Syl started singing teasing lyrics to her about her hair being recently ablaze. The woman didn't even leave the show to assess the damage and for the rest of the night SPACE reeked of burned human hair.
Near the end of the show, Syl addressed the earliest point in his career in Chicago, when he hung around with Magic Sam, and he played some amazing blues guitar on two Sam classics, including "Easy Baby." Johnson is a spectacularly gifted blues guitar player, although he initially said he was just a singer who also played guitar. That was about the only time Syl's humble side was on display. Many times he would address himself in third person. Johnson later had the crowd in stitches when he talked about how he could be the poster boy for Viagra. He want on and on about this belief, talking about "SIDE-EFFECTS, my SIDE-EFFECTS!!!!!!!" with visuals added, to be sure the audience got the point.
Overall throughout this fantastic evening, Syl Johnson showed what a great singer, songwriter, guitarist, harp-player, band leader and showman he is. He is Chicago's Ike Turner and that's the highest praise I can give an artist like that. Johnson is a treasure of American music.