If rock and roll is the devil, J.D. McPherson is certainly one of its minions.
In a night reminiscent of a 1950’s sock hop, McPherson lit up the crowd at TD Arena. On a clear, muggy Friday night following a tropical storm that prompted festival organizers to move the performance from the Cistern Yard to the arena, McPherson made sure audience members got their money’s worth.
As he and his band walked on stage, the night instantly transformed into something from a bygone era; dark denim and slicked back hair, double bass and rock ’n’ roll attitude. From the first chord, they made sure it stayed that way.
Early on, McPherson took a little time to share an anecdote about their previous night’s show in Virginia. He lamented that his jokes were not well received, and that he would be not telling any tonight. Someone from the crowd yelled, “We want to hear that guitar!” and from that point forward, that guitar was heard loud and clear.
Because of the change in venue, and the subsequent rush to adjust the sound system, the mix wasn’t always perfect. Instruments overpowered the vocals at times, even prompting bassist Jimmy Sutton to ask for more volume on his mic between songs. Nevertheless, McPherson and company gave the crowd exactly what they wanted.
Part straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll, part blues and rockabilly, McPherson revved the audience into frenzy. About a third of the way into the show, the floor of the arena, where the reserved seats were located, turned into a full-fledged dance party. As the set went on, dancers lined the wings and the area in front of the stage, bopping and hopping in time to the music.
They played from an improvised set list. As McPherson put it, “We didn’t make a set list. I blame the Internet.” But this improvisation provided the band a unique opportunity; they could play off the energy of the crowd to determine their next song.
And the energy fueled them. “Firebug” was a fast rockabilly tune that broke open the dance party early in the set, causing waves of people to leave their seats and swing and jive in the aisles.
“Beautiful Delilah,” a cover of the great Chuck Berry song, brought cheers from the crowd. Likewise, a Bo Diddley cover brought an already raucous crowd to its feet. McPherson’s ability to change up the tempo kept the audience on their toes.
Slow, soulful blues tunes would calm the dancers, coupling them for a romantic slow dance, then a rolling rock piece would suddenly excite, causing the whole floor to shake.
McPherson’s affable nature and clear, strong voice left the crowd pleased, but wanting more. Good thing he’s playing again Saturday night.
Nic Bell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.