JD McPherson Kicks Up Dance Fever At Spoleto

Devin Grant

What if you went to a concert and a sock hop broke out? That's pretty much what happened Friday night at the first show of a two-night stand by retro rocker JD McPherson. I was largely unfamiliar with McPherson's music prior to his being announced on the Spoleto Festival lineup. But once I got a listen to his album, Signs and Signifiers, I was on board. Just about any musician with enough chops can play retro rock n' roll, but few can really convince you that they have that music flowing trough their veins and ingrained in their DNA. McPherson is one of those types. Listening to and watching him play, you can see that he has a genuine love for the music he makes, but he doesn't showboat when he performs. Instead, there's a feeling of reverence and respect for the music, whether it's a well-chosen cover or one of McPherson's originals. 


Friday night's show had originally been scheduled to be held at the Cistern on the College of Charleston campus, but thanks to the effects of tropical storm Andrea, the venue was moved to the school's basketball facility, the TD Arena. I was there with my son, who had just been let out of first grade for the summer. We got there early and got a couple of seats up front. I wanted my son to be able to see what was going on, and before the show we played "I Spy," a favorite game of his, while he scoped out the instruments on the stage and the lighting rig above it. It was his first real concert, aside from a couple of in-store performances at Monster Music and the long-gone but much missed Chazzfest, where he got to see Al Green. Okay, so since he was an infant I guess he didn't really see Rev. Green, but he was there. 


Just after 9pm, the band was introduced and kicked into "Dimes and Nickles," a song from Signs and Signifiers. The '50s rock sound almost immediately got my son's attention. He's still at that age where he doesn't have to try and act cool or worry about how others perceive him. He's totally unafraid to be in the moment, and I love him for that. He seemed fascinated with the way that bassist Jimmy Sutton slapped and plucked his upright bass, the spinning parts of the Leslie speaker attached to the band's Hammond organ, and the LED stage lights that bathed the stage in various colors. All the while he was wiggling and bouncing in his seat to the music with a huge grin on his face. I was loving the fact that he was into the show. 


A cover of John Dee Holeman's "You Got to Lose, You Can't Win All the Time" followed, which featured an great solo by McPherson's saxophone player. Sutton plucked out the opening of "Country Boy" on his bass, and McPherson got the crowd singing the song's chorus toward the end. The singer advised the audience that the band had played in Virginia, where he'd made an unsuccessful attempt to tell a few jokes onstage. He promised not to make the same attempt with the Spoleto audience, earning him a light groan of disappointment from the crowd. McPherson did tell a funny story lter in the show involving a skeptical Dutch woman who apparently mistook Sutton for Jimmy Vaughan at a gig in the Netherlands. 


The band then continued its set, playing the Louis Jordanesque "I Can't Complain," "Your Love (All That I'm Missing)," and a cover of Bo Diddley's "Mona." The next song, "Abigail Blue," featured an amazing organ solo, and at the conclusion of the song McPherson advised that he had written the tune with his father, who just happened to be in the audience that night. 


The red hot "Firebug" led into a cover of Chuck Berry's "Beautiful Delilah," and that was about the time the dancers showed up. At first it was just a couple swing dancing to the right of the stage, but soon more folks joined the fun, and before you could say rock lobster there was a large crowd of folks dancing in the aisles. "We've got some civil disobedience going over here," joked McPherson while gesturing toward the dancers. Eventually, the dancers took over during another Bo Diddley cover. As McPherson and his band ran through "North Side Gal" and "Wolf Teeth," the no man's land between the front row of seats and the stage was full of folks doing every dance you can imagine.


Fred Astaire would have been both elated and a bit scared to witness what was happening on Friday night. I'm sure there were probably some folks that found the unregulated be-bopping annoying, but I honestly had to hand it to the ushers for just letting things be, as most of the folks up front simply stood up and joined the fun. By that time late in the show my once energetic son, whose bedtime is normally the time the concert started, was fading fast. We moved from our front row seats to some new ones toward the back to give the dancers a bit more room. Although he was still trying to dance in his seat to the music, I knew he'd be asleep soon. Fortunately, the band finished its main set, thanked the audience, and left the stage. McPherson and his band soon returned for a three-song encore that included a reggae-infused cover of "Oil in My Lamp," as well as a pair of McPherson originals, the slow "A Gentle Awakening" and the powerful "Scandalous."


After being impressed by McPherson's studio album, it was nice to see his live act take that music to the next level. Even though I was unable to take photos of s night's show with my DSLR camera, due to the fact that apparently Spoleto folks don't allow any photography at performances (even by journalists cleared for a photo pass) I still managed to snap a few photos with my iPhone of the dancing throng so you readers can see what the scene looked like. 


Interested in seeing McPherson do his thing? His band performs again TONIGHT at 9pm at the TD Arena. Tickets here! Try to check them out if you can.