Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson was the highlight feature at yesterday’s Wantu Blues Jam. Taking the stage after the house band performed their opening set, Johnson and a few of his regular band mates played some of the best blues songs in the blues catalogue. Johnson’s scheduled appearance at this weekly blues jam likely accounted for the huge turnout at Goffstown, New Hampshire’s Village Trestle yesterday afternoon.
Johnson came on strong with “Baby, You’re My Lover.” To say that Johnson played some tasty licks would be an understatement. He picked off notes that rang out with true color and tone within their compact brittleness. Johnson’s voice was also in good form at yesterday’s Wantu Blues Jam. He sang “Kansas City” sharp, low, and deep, with his harmonica player Otis Doncaster blowing some greasy notes behind his thick, rich vocal. Johnson’s former bass player Chico and Doncaster’s sometimes keyboardist Paul Nadeua supported him.
“Mean Mistreater” found Johnson’s voice full of pained blues feeling, and he let those emotions pour out of him with casual ease, the emotive qualities moving through him like he was living conduit to another, better, older time in blues. The beat was clearly something he feels in a spiritual sort of way, like it’s an anchor for the big ship of soul he’s piloting. He moved through the lyrics with supernatural energy, as if he’s sung these words ten thousand times before and still feels it while he sings and plays them. His timing never failed. He knew exactly when to pause to let the other musicians strut their stuff, especially when he let his keyboard player layer some soulful organ chords over a chunky, meaningful groove.
Johnson’s riffing was full of groove and snappy rhythm before he let harmonica player Gary Calderone plays some sweet harp notes before he returned to cranking out some feisty chords. His licks on “Mannish Boy” were striking, startling good, hitting the higher register with chilling notes. Meanwhile, his booming vocal rang out as he sang more of those timeless words, offering a treat for the ears and the soul.
Johnson sang with a slow boil energy over a lilting groove on “I Sing The Blues,” a groove enriched by breezy harp and organ lines. Here, Johnson cranked out a blues drenched guitar phrase that was whale bone solid and snappy as hell. The blues master also got a little call and response gong on with his audience, an audience that couldn’t get enough.
“You Can Keep Treating Me Mean, baby. I’ll keep loving you just the same,” Johnson sang out during “Sweet Sixteen” near the end of his set, turning blind faith into desperation with only a vocal inflection before moving into one of his originals “I Want Some Money.” Here, he crooned over a mischievous groove as Doncaster played some slippery, suspicious harp line.
Johnson came up to the band area later in the jam for a few more songs. With the front persons from Roxanne And The Voodoo Rockers supporting, he sang “Meet Me With You Black Drawers On,” making it a witty treat for the audience. The blues legend also went into “I’ve Got The Blues,” keeping his energy just below the surface in this slow boil, danceable blues.
There were some good follow ups to Johnson. To honor Mr. Johnson, and his blues genre, many of the acts played some of the best known, most loved blues standards. Twilight Gypsy included a sterling rendition of Gary Moor’s “Still Got The Blues” among their own three song set. Singer Kendall Bush, along with her bass player Mickey Maguire, sang a special ode to Johnson, delivering a straight blues version of “Walkin’ The Dog,” which was part of an album for which Johnson had once won a Grammy Award.
Jerry “Ray” Basnar, a Laconia-based blues guitarist-vocalist (and alleged alien abduction victim), whipped up a fun version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” A lineup featuring Paul Dickinson found Dickinson singing lead vocals on “Back Door Man,” the Willie Dixon classic that’s been played and recorded by many blues and rock artists over the years. Dickinson’s boys put plenty of thump in the groove, lots of wiry muscle in the guitars, and Dickinson graced it with a blues style vocal approach. There was a mix of blues and rock styles mixed together in that whirlwind rendition. Local guitarist David Papa played a crawling blues version of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” before Stephen Clarke came on board to belt “That Will Never Do” by Freddie King.
Regulars at the Wantu Blues Jam included Rick Amidon, Junie Valliancourt, Dave Glannon, Carol Townsend, and the house band, Chris Noyes, Dave Guilmette, and Bob Pratte.
Yesterday was a roaring success for Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Wantu Blues Jams, and the Village Trestle yesterday. With more events like this, the Trestle could become New Hampshire’s new kind of Rynborn.