Feature by EUGENE McGLOIN
CONCERT REVIEW - "Review of Kevin Johnson at the Olympia Theatre - Dublin"
The six-piece backing group of Irish, English and Australians unobtrusively conducted by Johnson's compatriot, Wayne Findlay, had every note in order, running through some unnamed melody when Johnson's giant figure - guitar in one hand and another waiting on stage - strode out before a sell-out audience some of whom didn't know what to expect from a ballad-type singer whose best known song talked of giving his best years in life to rock and roll. He opens up with the beautiful ballad: "Woman (You Took My Life)", telling the tale of someone be reached out to when he "could see no point in going on" and found that he gave his hopes and dreams, his love and schemes to a woman who eventually leaves him, with the feeling only of having taken his whole life with her. Reaching out to somebody who's not there is a law which determines hopelessness in the course of human politics. Johnson is a wordsmith but he doesn't forge his thoughts on an anvil of anger, but rather of remembrance for beautiful things, each individual and unrepeatable as an experience. He's a lovely simple writer of English poetry set to simple, not-too-loud music, with clear evidence of the hunger in the soul which drove on the early Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot and John Prine. He follows up his opening number with "Shaney Boy", a sonnet of praise - a soliloquy - dedicated to his eldest son, Shane. Someone in the audience is so moved by the song that they write a note up to Johnson who is indeed proud that his words should mean so much to someone: The song begins: "Little boy you seem to wake up earlier every morning, come running from your bedroom to meet the day / with a pair of sleepy eyes that would have slept a little longer and a thousand urgent things you have to say"/. Who ever painted a more perfect picture of general childhood, the morning of all our lifetimes, which Johnson with pure pathos (and an aware sense that poetry is the inexpressible anguish of everyday life) records "passes all too quickly in our lifetime". The crowd respond with warm applause, cut short only by the singer-songwriter moving into "Taking the Long Road Home", a song which lowers the emotion-charged tension which underlines his tremendous state of presence on stage, dressed in red short-sleeved jacket and jeans with an open-necked white shirt. Johnson utters his first words to the crowd and goes into a long introduction to his next song: "Iridescent Shadows", a song reflecting on the human nature of all people who imagine that days gone by are the best days in life. He relates the tale to a guy who worked on the making of his first album in Australia, "In the Quiet Corners of My Mind"; of a guy who was anything but quiet and bored him with mumbling complaints and who, years later, would meet him and say 'do ye remember the good old days'. The song begins magically and warmly: "I remember / warm September / creeping down an August highway in a worn-out trusted buddy someone called a car. . ." before he delivers the message of the song to question if the memories were as good as he's led to believe they were or whether they were - as we all too often find - just the shadows of some black and white affair. Johnson has established rapport with his audience at this stage and he's into another slightly too-long introduction to the song', which I consider to be the most underrated in his whole repertoire. It's a haunting song called "Kedron Brook" which, on his "Rock and Roll" album is a waltz-type song with concertinas, guitars and lush swing along string arrangements painting a musical mural. On stage the strings have been suitably compensated for by some excellent bass playing by a guy whose name I couldn't catch. Johnson betrays his first hint of political commitment in his introduction to the song. He talks of reincarnation and expresses disgust that they're thinking of erecting a statue in his native country to the Queen of England's ' Governor-General who fired their Prime Minister who had .showed attitudes of independence from Mother England. "I hope they erect the statue because in reincarnation I'm coming back as a pigeon", says Johnson. It was all the English-hating Irish wanted to hear. "Kedron Brook" is not a political song, though, in the accepted sense. It conjures up pictures of a world of nature's beauty where we never get to know about the important things like the rhythm of life running through nature and such things because, to make a living, you have to engage in the soul destroying work-cycle which stifles your natural cycle; it's a theme which Jackson Browne, the American songwriter, approaches from a different angle in a song called "The Pretender". Johnson's song though remains in your head long after you've heard it with lines like: "a feeling the feeling / that sent my head reeling wondering how it could be / that the feeling of something so strange / seemed strangely familiar to me" / and then "when the gentry were waltzing to the gentle maxinas / and the hansom cabs swayed like young ballerinas / and life was as sweet as an old concertina / that rattled its way / through a holiday". The lines just surge through your blood long after the song has gone. Its reincarnation is in remembrance of its possible themes.
NO HIDING FEELINGS
Johnson confirms his political commitment with a song called "Over the Hills and Far Away", a restrained statement that would sound much better possibly in the hands of someone like the late Woody Guthrie or the late Phil Ochs or even our own Christy Moore, whose recent political songs have anger written in every line. The crowd love every minute of it, though I've lost a faith in the sincerity of the commitment by young people in this country to ally themselves with the rights of right in a wrong society. "She's Leaving" is a song (written to the tune of Auld Lang Syne), which topped the Australian charts and went big in the United States when Jim Ed Brown put it out on record over there. A simple song that admits failure and is incapable of hiding the author's feelings when his wife walks out: "the fool in me / persuading me / to hide the broken pieces of my dignity". Johnson, one gets the impression from his songs, had to subdue a lot of personal pain before the lines went on paper.
Longford's own, Brendan O'Reilly, recorded the Irish cover version of the song three years ago but it lacked the emotion charged pace which Johnson's powerful voice both convey and keep under command at one and the same time. The Australian singer is faultlessly moving through his set, approaching the half-way stage with "No Sense at All", a song which underlines human failure again and "New York City", a song which in my opinion underlines nothing at all and least of all this artist's immense ability. But he soon redresses the imbalance with the highlights of the night. First, a song called "Scotty", dedicated to his younger son. It could, in the hands of an Irish singer songwriter, turn into a maudling chapter thirty-three of a come-all-ye but in this artists's hand it examines the things - even love - which touch different parts of our life at a tangent and then they're gone. Forever. It was the first time I heard the song and I remember it as the highlight of the show, tracing as it does how his young son asks him questions about life which the father in reply tells him that he's lived a lot longer and can't answer the same questions, maybe sometimes can't even bring himself to ask the questions any more. Johnson sums it up: "Scotty, life can be rough / Scotty, life can be tough". The nuances of the singer's voice as he ranges through those lines lift the song above the pain which the lines could painfully impress in the hands of a lesser artist. All Johnson leaves one with is a dull ache which makes one even appreciate the pain to hear the pleasure of things he's observed on his journey from his birthplace in Rockhampton, Queensland, to the stage of Dublin's Olympia Theatre. The crowd know the next song from the first chord "Rock and Roll I gave you all the best years of my Life" is an anthem, a song which will be remembered long after the Seventies have gone. It's a song of dreams, broken dreams, consolations, new dreams and the consolation that in an empire of dreams - broken or otherwise - a dreamer is still king. It moves through a lifetime in its five minutes and twenty seconds. The song is a true classic: "I can still remember when I bought my first guitar / put it proudly in my car and my family listened fifty times to my two-song repertoire / and I told my mum her only son is gonna be a star" / and then chapter one: "sixty-six seemed like the year we were really going somewhere / Livin' in San Francisco with flowers in our hair", and Johnson carefully traces the ebullient rise to fame and ecstasy to "Sixty-nine in L.A. / Came around so soon / we were really making headway / writing lots of tunes / We must have played the wildest stuff we had ever played / the way the crowds cried out for us we thought we had it made"/ but the bubble had burst and the bright lights of fame had dimmed in two years: .'Seventy-one in Soho when I saw Suzanne / I was trying to go it solo with someone else's band /.... "and she followed me / when finally / I sold my old guitar I and she tried to help me understand I'd never be a star". The recurring theme of the song is that the author and observer was always just one step behind, and would always be one step behind a person he most wanted to be in step with.
Fame, fleeting and robbing the soul of its strength if it is let, is a mistress which only keeps pace with the best of us for a short time. Then the dream breaks and everything breaks. Johnson's song will long outlive the Seventies. The audience give it a long, deserved ovation. This concorde-performer has scaled his height and it's a downward dropping flight from here in as he paces his way through "Sunday Morning Roses (From the Monday Morning Dust)", "Grab the Money and Run" before he finishes off with "Man of the 20th Century", his re-released and inferior single in Ireland at the moment. He comes back and does one encore with "There is Nothing I would Rather Do than Love You'.
Johnson says introducing one of his own songs: "some songs go deeply into your personality and some go deeply into your soul". If one can say that each song by this man touches you in this way then it is fair to say that the guy himself in his total output is capable of touching you. It's hard to believe that he once displayed a total disinterest in music when his mother tried to teach him to play the violin. The music of Kevin Johnson is best summed up in the line of the song which took me to his talent in the first place because as the song says his music can take you "running chasing after better things, the laughter of another day".
I wouldn't like someone to tell you on Sunday morning next that you missed a great show by a great artist and I suggest that you go along and see the guy live and then re-live his pictures of life through his two albums "Rock and Roll" (recommended) and "Man of the 20th Century" with a third, "Journeys", coming in the Autumn.
Johnson is appearing at the Fountain Blue on Saturday night and in Athlone on the following Tuesday night, 13th March.