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.