Seventeen years since launching his comeback, Chicago soul and blues institution Syl Johnson sounds and looks remarkable. Under the banner of last year’s Numero Group release, Complete Mythology, Mr. Johnson is reasserting himself as the definitive entertainer he is, not simply another heavily sampled relic. Last Friday night at the Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, Mr. Johnson “owned the moment that he is”, as one concertgoer lauded him afterwards. What that means exactly is unclear, but as a spry seventy-four year old, he did pop his guitar neck between his legs (after a sequence of twenty crotch thrusts).
While charmingly chatty (“so this was a hit…yeah, no shit!”) and visibly tipsy, his vocal control and capacity were uncompromised. And though there were nervous moments of besotted a cappella hits between songs (provoking flashbacks to James Brown’s notorious Sonya Friedman interview), Johnson was unflappable in song. “Different Strokes” and “Take Me to the River” were explosive and crowd-pleasing, but Johnson easily reciprocated with introspection and touch on “Is it Because I’m Black”.
Supporting Mr. Johnson was a 12-piece band, complete with a quartet of glittering back-up girls. Likely learning the repertoire under urgent circumstances, they dutifully followed their charts and played a precise, but practically sterile set. Countless breaks regressed into vamps instead of contoured developments. Any musical dynamism was left entirely to Mr. Johnson, which he naturally directed with aplomb.