Live: Syl Johnson Socks It To ‘Em At Southpaw


Syl Johnson
Friday, December 3

Better than: Whatever you did Friday night.

“I’m gonna fuck the band up,” announces Syl Johnson, and he means it. He has commanded a sold-out Southpaw, packed wall to wall with vintage-soul obsessives, for about an hour now, backed by the Sweet Divines and the Divine Soul Rhythm Band, a full complement of cooing backup singers, blasting horns, and Famous Flames-style funk incineration, everyone nattily dressed, but not quite as nattily as the man in charge. (“I love the Dap-Kings, but these motherfuckers bad, too!” Johnson raves.) Together they’ve barreled through shoulda-been-bigger-hits from his ’60s/’70s/slightly beyond heyday, including the mighty “Different Strokes,” one of many vintage SJ tracks later transformed into vicious hip-hop samples. (“Tupac! Michael Jackson! Wu-Tang Clan!” he crows, shouting out his benefactors. “Shame on a nigga who try to run game on a nigga!”) They do “Take Me to the River,” and it’s glorious. But now the set is over, and Syl, understandably, is loathe to step back out of the spotlight. And we are loathe to let him. So go ahead, dude. Fuck the band up.

We are here to celebrate the release of the tellingly titled Complete Mythology, a six-LP, 4-CD package from professional soul excavators the Numero Group — “Numero Uno,” Syl calls them, and it’s not clear whether he’s paying tribute or bungling the name. I could listen to this guy banter all day. “The harder y’all clap, the more we’re gonna bust our asses,” we are informed. And then he busts his ass, dipping from a gnarly bark to a yelp-y falsetto (a touch of Dave Chappelle at the high end, there) during the deceptively laid-back strut of “Any Way the Wind Blows,” clumsily working to coordinate his pelvic thrusts with the drummer’s snare cracks and laying down a fiery, wolf-whistling blues-guitar solo himself. “Is it Because I’m Black,” his big social-consciousness declaration and alleged viral sensation (“1,000 hits a day on YouTube!”), is a slow, slinky, tambourine-waving epic. “Come on and Sock It to Me” socks it to ’em. And yes, “Take Me to the River” is epic, Syl switching to harmonica, untucking his shirt, repeatedly grabbing his crotch, dropping in a few curse words, and generally muddying the river up to exhilarating effect.

Hard to know how to top that. Clearly. The emcee from live soul-excavation series Dig Deeper jumps onstage to see Syl off, but Syl is not ready to relinquish the mic, and after an awkward interval he’s back at it, calling for the strutting holler of “Ms. Fine Brown Frame,” which the band does not seem to have anticipated, stumbling gamely after their man as he blasts out some rapping of his own, frantically waving them off until they let him do the same frantic verse, a capella, several times. He sounds more like Debbie Harry than the RZA, but let him have this moment. He earned it. “I can’t keep carrying on like that,” he finally admits to us, exhausted. “That’s enough of that.” The band stops. The crowd cheers. And then he launches into the verse again. The band is thoroughly fucked up. The crowd is elated. And Syl Johnson is finally a star.

Critical Bias: Love this interview. “I remember I had sex with two different women out of my country.”

Overheard: [Peers at set list.] “Oh, here’s a good one. Here’s the one that made me who I am.” [That’d be “Come on Sock It to Me.”]

Random Notebook Dump: White people!

Set List
That’s Why (I Love You So)
Straight Love, No Chaser
Different Strokes
I’m Looking for My Baby
Any Way the Wind Blows
Come on Sock It to Me
Is It Because I’m Black
All of Your Love
Same Kind of Thing
Take Me to the River
Try Me [his, not JB’s]
Ms. Fine Brown Frame