[live review] Swamp Dogg @ Johnny D's

The word around the room was that SWAMP DOGG hadn’t played in these parts since the Lowell Folk Fest of 2010. Before that, no one could remember how long. Born Jerry Williams Jr. in Portsmouth, Virginia, Swamp Dogg recorded some R&B singles in the ’60s and broke through, as it were, with the 1970 LP Total Destruction to Your Mind. So at Johnny D’s last night, the faithful and the curious showed up. The opening set was by NYC band Tre Williams (no relation) and the Revelations — an extremely capable retro-soul outfit. The band went on to back Swamp Dogg.

He did not disappoint. Diminutive, portly, elegant — dressed in an off-white suit, purple shirt, and diamond-pattern tie — he did a couple of quick step-and-slides on the dance floor before ascending the stage to his warm-up music. Bald and bespectacled, he sat behind a keyboard and: POW! “Let me introduce myself: I’m a lover man! I’m here to make you happy/happy as I can!” His sturdy tenor pierced the room through the horns, guitar, bass, and drums Between songs he changed glasses (“I’m blind as a fucking bat”), then it was on to the classic been-cheated-on ballad (“I shoulda called before I get home”), then a soul-ballad remake of John Prine’s weepy Vietnam-vet folk song, “Sam Stone” (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”), a tambourine slapping on top of the hi-hat. The first half of the set culminated in the psychedelic-soul rave-up “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” which begins: “Sittin’ on a cornflake/ridin’ on a roller skate/too late to hesitate/or even meditate.”

Swamp Dogg had the voice and the classic churchified soul delivery, even on the jazzy ballad standard “Since I Fell for You”: “It’s too bad, too bad . . . that I’m in love with you.” He sang “In My Resume,” which he provided in an explanation mid-song: “Work. Lovin’. And sex.” He finished with, of all things, the Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” the band repeating the chorus over and over again as Swamp Dogg circled the club, reaching out to people, singing, “Hold on! Hold on!”

We reached out, clutched his hand. We held on. And we were saved.

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