Southside Johnny — Birchmere 12/11
Southside Johnny was a week removed from turning the young age of 73 but hadn’t set foot onstage to publicly celebrate it. Johnny Lyon’s visit to the Birchmere turned the first of two nights in the Washington DMV area into a birthday bash.
After singing “I Played The Fool ” early in the set, Lyon called out to his road crew to bring out the birthday presents and shirts trumpeter Chris Anderson had given him. Wearing a brand new blue shirt under his brown suede jacket and new white Converse sneakers, he then proceeded to model the TJ Maxx store bought wares as the Jukes played the theme to “Girl From Ipanema.”.
“Southside, you sexy bitch,” a woman yelled out to the singer whose silver hair dangles down on his still boyish face. At one point he embraced a gigantic puppet given to him “by the front row” and turned ventriloquist.
It was like a hybrid birthday and Christmas holiday party with Lyon singing a few happy birthday bars to himself. Lyon came onstage and tried putting on a giant silver bow that waited for him onstage but quickly tossed it to the front row where it was received by Bill Burke who had come with his wife Mary all the way from Denville in Southside’s native home state of New Jersey.
Even before Southside set foot on stage, the show promised to be good. Lyon hadn’t played in a while and the Birchmere is one of his favorite venues. Launching into Little Steven’s “Until The Good Is Gone” the Jukes soul revue was amply powered by the horn section of Anderson, trombonist Neal Pawley and sax player John Isley.
“Not everyone can take that sitting down,” Lyon told the room of crowded rectangular tables that reminded of New York’s long defunct Bottom Line club where he recorded and immortalized his signature song, Sam Cooke’s “Havin’ a Party.” On “This Time Baby’s Gone For Good,” Lyon harmonized with keyboardist Jeff Kazee while the horns filled the room. Johnny started a clap along and then reached back for the next song all the way to the first album with “Sweeter Than Honey.”
Lyon pulled the mic out on “I Played The Fool” before putting it back in and grabbing the stand and pulling it back in classic fashion. Using his hands to enunciate his phrasing and direct his band mates, Lyon pulled his jacket off and called out “Spinning” getting a loud endorsement from Anderson in the horn section. As Johnny blew his harp, he showed why he is still vying for the crown of hardest working man in show business. The band was a full out and out soul revue as Johnny philosophized on why true love is “Hard To Find” and guitarist Glenn Alexander riffed the night away.
Southside and the Jukes launched into “Key To The Highway” in the tempo of “Fannie Mae” as Johnny and guitarist Alexander provided interlude while Kazee plucked notes and Southside looked on.
When Lyon pulled out the doll center stage, he quickly lost patience and said he felt like bashing its head. The diversion of a Christmas song allayed the angst and Kazee found the right key that kicked Lyon into the raspy pleas of the Christmas chestnut “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Lyon pushed his dangling silver hairs back savoring the words and delivering a soulful rendering of a timeless classic.
As Isley’s sax wailed during “Love On The Wrong Side of Town” Lyon wiped the sweat off his face like he was a prizefighter. The Jukes kicked into the spirit of the season as they called on William Bell’s “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday” buttressed by the horn section and Isley’s sax solo.
When Lyon came out of the song, he acknowledged the news of the day that we’d lost a Monkee, the late Michael Nesmith. Lyon started singing the words of “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone.”
“I know this song,” he said as he tried to work it out. Lyon could only come up with a few words and admitted he didn’t know any songs that Nesmith sang so he chose “Daydream Believer,” written by the late John Stewart and onetime member of the Kingston Trio who once held court at the Birchmere. The communal chorus of la La las connected us back to our youth.
As Little Steven’s “Forever” began, Lyon motioned to guitarist Alexander with his fingers to get the guitar intro he wanted. Southside was still bobbing up and down during Isley’s sax solo while still shaking his fingers and following Alexander’s smoldering guitar solo, Lyon went into “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” like he was telling an old story.
The playful “Merry Christmas Baby” led into “Talk To Me” as Lyon cheered the audience’s singing. A woman was dancing in front of the band with a t-shirt emblazoned “I Partied With Southside.”
Storytelling hour continued as Southside rapped about Santa coming down the chimney at Graceland to go with Elvis into his pink Cadillac. It was Christmas month but outside the temperature was in the sixties.
Lyon recently attended the wedding of E Street Band’s Gary Tallent’s daughter in New Orleans where he said he was a flower girl. he cut a cool groove into “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” with his penchant for storytelling and the swing of the full horn section and breaking into a harp solo. That continued a few songs later as Johnny retelling of the classic New Orleans tale of “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price. The horns fired on each beat with every bullet that Stagger Lee put in poor Billy.
The band did a nice prelude to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Fever” with Anderson playing flugelhorn and trumpet. At the end, Lyon called out “I’m Not That Lonely” and the horn section was once again in unison to the song he wrote with Jeff Klazee.
Lyon uses his arms like a maestro, signaling drummer x to bring it down during “Trapped Again” as he segued into Sam Cooke’s classic “Change Is Gonna Come.” It was getting late and the inevitable signature song was coming. As Lyon put his hands up to the sky, he sang “I Don’t Want to Go Home ” pulling back the mic stand with full frontman fervor.
A woman put up a paper sign that was too far for Southside to read. As she passed it over head, I asked her what it said. “Southside was my first concert,” she told me. In the front row Bill Burke took it and handed it to Southside who read it and raised his eyebrows sharply to the messenger as the note read “You were my first.”
The set closed out with “I’ve Been Working Too Hard,” as Klazee sang and Johnny came over to play with the doll. Inside the screen projected images of snow falling with a fireplace burning in full holiday spirit.
The band came out for an encore. Southside dialed up “Sherry Darling,” the fraternity rock song written by his old friend Bruce Springsteen. With its bossa nova beat, Southside Johnny leaned back and used his hands to enunciate the percussive beats he wanted as the horns blared.
“Don’t bring out the little Richard in me,” he warned. “You don’t wanna see that.”
By then the front row was on its feet as tradition called for “Havin’ a Party,” Sam Cooke’s classic that Lyon adopted for life. It’s groove was still fresh from Lyon’s New Orleans trip and it was the perfect bookend for the birthday bash that this night was.
Find info on Southside Johnny here: https://www.southsidejohnny.com