Johnny Sansone Steals the Show at Chenango Blues Fest
They used to call him Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone. At 62, this former athlete who won a college scholarship based on his swimming prowess no longer jumps around on stage, but, like Mohammed Ali, he moves like a butterfly and stings like a bee. I haven’t seen a big man this feral since Howlin’ Wolf in his heyday.
Backed by a three-piece band that includes John Fohl who spent 11 years as Dr. John’s lead guitarist, Sansone led his juggernaut group through an hour-long set of originals at the Chenango Blues Fest at the Chenango Blues Festival on Saturday, August 17th. His set had the punch of ZZ Top and lyrics that matched Willie Dixon’s for colorful imagery. Sansone is more of a philosopher than Dixon who wrote many of Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor’s biggest hits. Sansone’s signature piece, “Lord Is Waiting and the Devil Is Too” earned a Blues Foundation Blues Music Award for song of the year with the lyrics, “I ain’t crazy, but I ain’t right. Give me what I want and I’ll save your life.”
Johnny feels it’s an artist’s job to find himself creatively. Jr. Wells once taught him to find his own musical voice, and he told me in 2017, “I think (an artist) disconnects himself from anybody who actually thinks about what he’s doing. He’s not doing it for them. He’s doing it for himself, and he’s putting everything he can into it. This is a hypnotic state to a certain degree. It’s completely different. He doesn’t know what’s going on around him. There could be nobody there, and he’s going to do the same thing, and that thing, that hypnosis, goes into people’s hearts. He doesn’t care. His job is to find himself.”
Perhaps that quote offers a clue as to why he was playing second on the bill at 12:30 in the afternoon in Chenango rather than headlining a festival loaded with great acts. Like Mem Shannon, he’s a New Orleans treasure, a small fish in a big pond. Fiercely independent, he likes to do things his own way.
Maneuvering one’s way from the bottom of the barrel to the kind of superstardom he deserves is a slippery slope that requires a team backing of a great agent, a viable record label and a strong business sense. Sansone has none of these. He’s flying solo when it comes to business, but his band has him soaring. I asked guitarist John Fohl if in his 11 years with Dr. John, did the Gris Gris Man ever step out of character. “Nope. What you saw was who he was.” Same with Sansone. Bass player Jeff Bridges has been with Sansone 13 years, and drummer John Milham, formerly with the underrated Grayson Capps, dedicated his solo album Arden’s Garden to his children John Brooks, Ana & Arden who “have taught me everything I know.”
Sansone’s set included songs from two of his 12 albums, Once It Gets Started and his latest Hopeland. He has a live album cut in Sweden due out next year.
Sansone commented on the beautiful day, but opening act The Brian Gold Experiment’s first number was more prophetic: “Going Down” by Freddie King. As the day progressed, the weather went from bright sun to torrential rain that fell off and on from 3 p.m. on with lightning, sun, and sheets of rain sometimes all at the same time. Daniele Nicole’s main stage set was cut short. Pokey LaFarge played to an overstuffed tent, and the Downchild Blues Band was moved to the tent, their set stopped by claps if thunder.
I was dying to see Joe Louis Walker, Lurrie Bell playing with Mississippi Heat, and Tab Benoit, but the thought of driving home wet for two hours in the dark won over my obsession with blues, and I packed it in.