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Whole Coffeehouse Michael Johnson

Concert Reviews

1968-1975
Title:First NMSU Lyceum Show Well Received By Patrons
Venue:NMSU Lyceum - Las Cruces, NM - September 26, 1968
Review:Connie Blackwell, Las Cruces Sun-News - October 04, 1968

  The first attraction on the Lyceum Series planned by Associated Students was a success…perhaps not money-wise, for there was a small audience, but response-wise it was great.

Denver, Boise and Johnson, in a program in the ballroom of the new Corbett Center at New Mexico State University obviously hit the audience where it lived.

John Denver and David Boise, two-thirds of the old Chad Mitchell Trio, along with Mike Johnson, classical guitarist, have appeared on top television shows and in famous nightclubs across the United States.

In blue-gray suits with psychedelic ties and comparatively short haircuts (just above the white shirt collars), they managed to look conservatively mod.

Denver, spokesman for the group, said they were happy to be in Las Cruces, "home of the Cork 'N Bottle and Gateway to Hatch."

The program might have been very enlightening to many parents who are wondering what the younger generation is all about, what motivates them. Most of the numbers by the trio actually asked the same old questions each generation has asked; but, the questions are applied today to as different a reality from their parents' as the parents' reality would have been from the days of Rome and Greece.

Denver, Boise and Johnson's music is centered in today…mainline music composers and performers have been left behind. Even jazz is out of tune with the youth of the Swinging Sixties, except as nostalgic and "period" music. The day of Southern blues, gospel music, chain gang music- based jazz changed overnight while adults were asleep to a new sense of the dignity of man, a militant demand for human rights and contempt for hypocrisy.

War songs changed when those of us over 25 were looking the other way from tunes of the glories of wiping out the enemy and the "Lord-is-on-our side" to songs questioning the right of one human being to take the life of another even when so ordered by authority.

A song about "Penti-gonorrhea" sung in Southern gospel quartet style with a background guitar poked fun at the military mind… "We Didn't Know, You Can't Hold Us To Blame" began with the German people pleading innocence in the face of atrocities against the Jewish race, ranged to the average Southerner shrugging off responsibility for persecution of the Negro race and ended with John Doe of today's attitude of "What Can I Do?" about the war in Vietnam…"Business Goes On As Usual" is the cry of a youth whose brother, living life, was killed in a "war he did not understand."

This generation is asking the same old questions and facing the same old problems… "Take Me To Tomorrow" (disillusion); "If You Had Me In A Dungeon" (self-limitations, "stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage"); "Leaving On A Jet Plane" (the sorrows of any man in any age who must continually be traveling on); "Victoria Dines Alone" (loneliness, the paradox of being alone in the world's largest cities); "Mama will love you and Dad will buy you a dream" (the grinding down of self-respect of the poverty-ridden); and two songs about growing old and compassion—"Mr. Bojangles" and a song about an old man and his dancing puppeteers, Seth Davey who died in 1905. This one turned into a sing-along: "Come Day, Go Day, Wishing My Heart For Sunday, Drinking buttermilk all week, Whiskey on a Sunday."

The program wasn't a "message"…some of the best performed songs were just for fun. The talented trio sang a Hank Williamish country and western spoof called "Heart." The most outstanding line was "you stomped on my aorta." At the close, Boise said, "I want to send this out to the sickly and afflicted", provoking gales of laughter.

There was an hilarious tune about smoking pot in Vietnam set to the tune of at least a century-old mountain "talking blues."

There was a song of the coal miners, sung by Boise; and, a song of the church bells of Wales, with its gamut of emotions covered by John Denver, who also played a 12-string guitar folk-style.

Mike Johnson played a lovely soft Spanish classical number…"the only difference between classical and any other kind of guitar is seeing how long you can stay in a pre-natal position without getting hurt."

The trio sang in close harmony a very funny satirical "John Birch Society" and another they called "a commercial"… "See The New 1968 Nixon Before He Changes Again."

The trio's "orchestra", Paul Prestopino, from Roosevelt, N.J., received a thunderous round of applause for his banjo solo and returned for a demanded encore. He had switched from banjo to six-string guitar to 12-string to Spanish guitar with ease during the program. Looking like a smaller and younger edition of Burl Ives, he seemed to handle a stringed instrument as an extension of his hands.

He was one of the best five-string banjoists I have ever heard…and I come from country where there is practically one under every bush—even my mother plays a banjo!

The program closed, as every good musical program should, with the audience reluctantly leaving, hating to go home and leave the atmosphere of universal brotherhood.

The last three numbers were a medley on the evils of discrimination and the poignancy of children finding out for the first time that the color of one's skin does make a difference…"The Little Brown Girl," "Blowing In The Wind," and "The Time To Love One Another Is Right Now."
(Thanks to John Marlowe & Alfie Temple.)

Title:Talent In Action: Michael Johnson, Lonnie Knight
Venue:Earl of Old Town - Chicago, IL - December 25, 1971
Review:Earl Paige, Billboard Magazine

  If there's any room left for yet another folk singer, then Michael Johnson is ready. Although he's gotten a head start on many contemporaries, a dazzling guitarist, he studied under Brazilian Luiz Bonfa, worked with Back-Porch Majority, joined the Mitchell Trio following Chad Mitchell's departure, was then part of a trio with John Denver and David Boise and worked a year in "Jacques Brel Is Alive . . ." in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Thus, his repertoire ranges from classics and jazz to more traditional folk and even whole sets of Brel numbers. No set is the same. On the evening caught, he was somewhat redundant on the more spirited accompaniment to a few songs, but the audience was with him, especially on the lyrical classic "Leyende," his 11th song - absolute quiet prevailed as he stroked and coaxed notes from his guitar.

The Earl is a challenging place to work because it's a mecca for folk artists, the one spot here where a Joan Baez or Kris Kristofferson will pop in unexpectantly. It's also a spawning ground for such names as Bonnie Kolac, Stevie Goodman, John Prine, Jim Post, Bob Gibson and so on. Owner Earl J. J. Pionke, however, works only local acts.

Former rock guitarist Lonnie Knight (Minneapolis' Litter, Crow -- now Sound 40) shared the bill and showed some promising vocal touches as well as some good ideas as a songwriter.

Title:KSC Students Loved Johnson's Concert
Venue:Recital Hall, KSC - Kearney, NE - September 6, 1973
Review:Deb Bertrand, The Kearney State College Antelope

Never has KSC heard such expert guitar playing - at least, not since Michael Johnson was last here a year ago. KSC students loved it and showed it.

The 550 capacity Recital Hall was overflowing by 8 p.m. with some having to sit on the floor in the back throughout the concert.

Johnson established himself well with the audience both in song and as he chatted with his audience as he tuned his guitar between songs.

"The Ladybug and the Centipede" was one of several songs where he showed that he was able to loosen his listeners and himself with his antics and humor.

He proved himself to be a versatile singer and player throughout his performance, the format offering a variety of style and mood ranging from county-western stompers to a sobering song called "Old Folks."

"I'm not tactful," he said after his first number, "I just come out here and do the things I'm interested in and try to fill in for the other two hours."

Johnson slid from his tunings into a dramatic instrumental solo, "Study in E Minor" almost before the audience knew what was coming, but the response showed it was appreciated. His playing was excellent and helped to draw the audience to his music as his lyrical voice flowed over the ranges without strain.

He used mostly pick-and-hit in his arrangements rather than actual strumming. The instrument was a classical guitar which Johnson calls "custom made" because it's been repaired so many times that it has been almost remade. "But it's my buddy," he said in an interview after the show.

Johnson's own songs were well-received. He performed "Cain's Blood," a song commenting on the evolution of man as a basically good creature.

Though he joked and laughed with the audience between songs, every eye in the house was attentively on his face and hands as he concentrated on his music. It was this quality that made Johnson seem "real" to those he tried both to entertain and to teach.

Last week Johnson performed concerts in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. Last night he began a week's tour in New York.

Johnson said his format was not planned before each show. He knows his first and last songs and the rest just seems to fall together. Sometimes it works quite well, he said, and other times it just doesn't. Thursday night it worked beautifully he said.

He was impressed with the KSC audience, saying he felt they communicated with him and they helped him really get it on.

He said many people have walked up to him in the past and thanked him for giving them so much and trying to apologize for not giving in return, but Johnson didn't agree with them. As it he put it, "Only beauty sees beauty, and only sensitivity can recognize sensitivity. I never have an audeince that doesn't say something to me."

"It was just great," he said, "A great house. I'll be back soon."

Title:Michael Johnson
Venue:Coffman Union, U of MN - Mpls, MN - November 1973
Review:Jon Bream, Minnesota Daily

If Twin Cities audiences had more than an iota of good taste they would have demanded five shows in three days from Michael Johnson, not Sham Phillips. Phillips is ostentatious, self-indulgent and overly boring, Johnson is tasteful, talented and perhaps too humble.

As it were, hordes camped outside the Orpheum Theatre in sub-freezing temperatures to see Twin Cities Superstar Phillips for three days and Johnson played to an appreciative capacity crowd Wednesday in the Coffman Main Ballroom.

Johnson describes himself as a combination arranger-plagiarist, not a songwriter. He is also one hell of a singer - what a full, rich voice! And he plays a nimble guitar. Johnson is sort of Leo Kottke with a voice performing other people's songs.

The now-Twin Cities resident served up a fast-paced 90 minutes of unoriginal goodies with his own special recipes. Johnson's musical taste is excellent, his seasoning just right. He balanced the menu well: ballads, folk, blues and ditties.

The audience responded best to the material from Johnson's album, "There Is a Breeze," especially Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell," "Jacques Brel's "Old Folks," Johnson's "Happier Days" and the single "Rooty Toot Toot For the Moon." Johnson's humor, particularly "Gimmie That Wine" and "The Ladybug and the Centipede," a love song for insects, was effective. His blues guitar on "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" was skillful although his voice is definitely more suited to pop than boozy blues. Unfortunately, the talented guitarist did not offer anything from his classical repertoire.

Johnson's warmth transcended the impersonal ballroom and the audience responded by demanding two encores. They seemed to agree that Michael Johnson should be closer to provincial superstardom than Shawn Phillips.

Title:Guitarist's Solo a Success
Venue:Guthrie Theater - Mpls, MN - December 30, 1973
Review:Roy M. Close, Minneapolis Star

One of the most welcome by-products of the Walker Art Center's series of rock and jazz concerts at the Guthrie Theater has been the exposure it has brought to local artists such as Bobby Lyle, Rick Shope and Michael Johnson.

Johnson, an excellent guitarist whose career has been long but not especially illustrious, gave his first solo concert at the Guthrie last night (he had appeared there previously as an opening act).

To his obvious delight, the concert was a sellout; and after conquering an early case of nerves he delivered two very agreeable, if not overwhelming, hours of music.

Although Johnson, a boyishly handsome man with wavy blond hair, is still in his 20s, he has been playing professionally for more than a decade.

His checkered career has included service with Randy Sparks and the Back Porch Majority, the Mitchell Trio in the days when its leader was John Denver, and the long-running off-Broadway musical, "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," with which he toured for almost a year. He has also studied classical guitar at Andres Segovia's conservatory in Barcelona.

His music reflects these influences, among others. Last night's concert ranged from ballads like Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell" to Biff Rose's thumping "Got You Covered," with stops along the way for a couple of Brel tunes, Peggy Lee's "In the Name of Love," and one classical number, Villa-Lobos' "Study in E Minor."

During the early going, Johnson's playing was stiff and unsteady, and his singing was scarcely better. But he gradually relaxed, found a low-key rapport with his audience, and finished the concert with a flourish.

Johnson does not have a particularly fine voice, although he sings with an intensity that compensates for the absence of smoothness and flexibility in his sound.

Like many musicians who consider themselves poets, he shows a marked preference for emotional songs ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," for example, is in his repertoire), although - happily - he is also partial to humorous tunes and handles them well.

What separates him from dozens of other moderately able singers with record albums to their credit is his musicianship. His fingering is nimble and precise, and he can produce a wide range of harmonic and percussive effects from his instrument. Although he is not a prolific composer, he often writes new arrangements for the songs he sings, and some of them are very impressive.

The evidence of last night's concert was that Johnson is a personable performer who will never have much trouble winning over an audience in any reasonably intimate hall where his guitar can be heard clearly and his mild, self-deprecating humor can retain its charm.

On the other hand, the concert also suggested that he must improve as a vocal stylist and interpreter if he wants to graduate permanently from the ranks of the warm-up singers.

Title:Views and Reviews - Music
Venue:Guthrie Theater - Mpls, MN - December 30, 1973
Review:Michael Anthony, Minneapolis Tribune

Freezing temperatures were no obstacle Sunday night for the fans of singer-songwriter Michael Johnson who bought every ticket in the house for a program of Johnson's distinctive brand of beautifully sung folk balladry.

Folk music, of course, is too narrow a term for the range of material that Johnson presents. As in the case of his friend and sometimes-collaborator Leo Kottke - they both began performing in the halcyon folk days of the early 1960s - a Johnson program might include contemporary pop material, blues, classical instrumentals and show tunes.

Though Johnson grew up around Denver, his home for the past four years has been suburban Minneapolis, and his audience in this area is a large one. It's growing in other parts of the country, too, I'm told, as a result of his debut album, "There Is a Breeze."

It seemed obvious, as well, Sunday night at the Guthrie Theater that Johnson, dressed down for the occasion (in patched jeans and a baggy turtleneck), is still a bit surprised by audience adulation. And believe me, they adulated Sunday night, giving a couple standing ovations and generous applause throughout.

Perched on a stool, his acoustic guitar held across his chest, Johnson delivered a nearly two-hour program that opened with Jackson Browne's wistful "My Opening Farewell" and concluded with "On The Road," both lovely tunes from Johnson's album.

After years of playing clubs and concerts (including a period as one-third of the Mitchell Trio), Johnson has developed an easy rapport with an audience, to say nothing of his gifts as a singer and guitarist.

Whether the material is thoughtful - in the manner of "Old Folks" (from the Jacques Brel revue, in which Johnson performed several years ago) - or whimsical - his best metier, I think, such as songs about muskrat love or a Christmas ditty by Mark Henley - Johnson's interpretations are always pleasurable. Surely, we'll be hearing a lot more of him in the future.

Title:Michael Johnson
Venue:Austin Comm College - Austin, MN - January 26, 1975
Review:John Enright

We wish everyone in Austin could have seen Michael Johnson's performance Sunday night in the Community College theater.

Playing before a full house, the gifted guitar-vocalist gave what has to be the best concert this town has ever seen and probably ever will see.

The 400-plus people who saw and heard the performance went away from the college knowing they had seen one of today's better young performers and a musician who should be heard for a long time in years to come.

When Johnson first walked on the stage, equipped only with a skillful touch on the guitar, three speakers and a clear strong singing voice, he received a fine ovation from an audience who obviously appreciated the opportunity to see a quality performer give a concert in this town.

Those ovations got bigger as Johnson responded with a first rate performance which demonstrated his talent, versatility and ease in front of an audience. From the opening number, "My Opening Farewell" by Jackson Browne, it was obvious why he has drawn favorable reviews and performed to full houses at the Guthrie Theater.

His music, much of it his own compositions, was chosen because of its quality rather than how often it has been played on the top 50 radio stations. Most of the music was unfamiliar to the audience with the exceptions of "Here Comes the Sun" and "Muskrat Love," both performed well.

Johnson's selection of music ranged from light pieces such as "Gimmie That Wine" to an old Peggy Lee number, "In the Name of Love" to a jazzy "One Note Samba."

His two most outstanding songs were composed by Jacques Brel and performed with the necessary sensitivity. One of the numbers, "Song Of Old Lovers," was from "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris" about the relationship over the years between a man and his woman while the second was a thought provoking number about old age called "Old Folks."

Mixing his own music with that of other composers and performing before what he called an intelligent college audience, Johnson's music delivered a message at times with songs telling us how we as people teach hate and racial prejudice to our children or how we should communicate with other people, not to them.

Johnson's concert, a well received event performed before an audience composed not just of students but a representation of all ages in the Austin community, is just one of a series of events that can only enhance the image of the community college in the eyes of the people it serves - and you and me.

Title:Guitarist Masters Tempo of Performing, Michael Johnson Wins Over Audience
Venue:Guthrie Theater - Mpls, MN - June 22, 1975
Review:Roy M. Close, Minneapolis Star

The difference between a dull concert and an exciting one can be the sum of many small things. Last night the numbers added up beautifully for singer-guitarist Michael Johnson in the first of his two-sold-out concerts at the Guthrie Theater.

There's never been much doubt about Johnson's talent as an instrumentalist - he is first-rate - or his ability to win over an audience with his personable, low-key style of performing.

But it has taken him some time to overcome his predilection of message-heavy songs (such as Jacques Brel's "Old Folks," which at long last he seems to have dropped from his repertoire) and songs that demand greater interpretive skill than his voice is capable of providing. He has also had to learn how to pace his concerts to keep them from peaking too soon -- or not at all.

That he has come a long way toward mastering these aspects of his craft was evident throughout last night's first set, a two-hour affair sponsored by Walker Art Center.

Johnson, a Colorado native who now lives in the Twin Cities, effectively mixed old and new, fast and slow, serious and humorous, effervescent and contemplative material.

Rather than perform alone for 90 minutes before bringing on his sidemen for a spirited final half-hour, as he did a year ago when he last played the Guthrie, he divided his set into two parts and used sidemen near the end of each section, thereby breaking into readily digestible portions his solo time without upsetting the momentum of the concert.

There were many other signs of improvement, too, not the least of which was that Johnson seemed significantly more relaxed and comfortable with his audience. He told genuinely amusing anecdotes about himself and his family. He exchanged ad lib witticisms with Mark Henley, one of his sidemen. For the first time, he seemed completely in control of the tempo of his performance and confident of his ability to maintain it.

As usual, Johnson devoted much of his solo time to intimate songs about personal feelings and relationships. But he balanced these with a variety of up-tempo numbers and whimsical tunes such as "Rooty Toot Toot For the Moon," which he presented in a way that underlined its nonsensicality without destroying its piquant charm.

His instrumentalism was typically excellent, and his sidemen - Henley on guitar; Tab Laven, all too briefly, on banjo - each contributed a solid, appealing performance.

Both of last night's concerts were sellouts, and Walker Art Center has now scheduled a third Johnson concert for 7 p.m. next Sunday.

Title:Artist's Appeal Strictly High Brow
Venue:Maintenance Shop, U of IA - Ames, IA - October 14, 1975
Review:Sherry A. LeVine, Daily Reviewer

It is near nothing but other abandoned mining towns except that Alma, Colorado (pop. 107) is the highest incorporated town in the country at 10,400 feet up in the Rockies. Its only other point of interest is the Silverheels Bar. This is where I first happened to see Michael Johnson sing last July.

There was no cover charge in the tiny place. The clientele has the basic hippie-cowboy look. Long hair, cowboy shirts, moustaches and Tony Lama's. Johnson was on vacation at the time but played with friends two nights at the Silverheels as a favor to the owners, his friends. He was back in home territory, as he is originally from Denver.

Maybe it's where he should have stayed, because at least there he was different from the locals. In the little bar Johnson curiously struck me as a fraternity boy, and in fact I remarked to my rancher friends that he looked like an Iowa State student.

Does one necessarily have to be blonde, blue-eyed, well-groomed and middle-class to totally enjoy Michael Johnson? Well, yes. Apparently like types attract here as he crooned to a straight and well-behaved group in the Maintenance Shop Saturday night.

My friend Angeles, who had come with me, described the singing as well-integrated. However, Johnson's appeal is not. A competent enough singer he is, though at times so soothing, I would consider taking him along to the dentist's office.

Johnson, who writes little of his own material, balladeered songs of John Prine and other country folkies. To perform another's material is quite acceptable, but I drew the line when he repeated George Carlin's jokes from the previous nights' performance in South Dakota.

He's such a "College-Y" guy just having some good clean fun. Why you could have comfortably brought Mom and Dad along as some people did. Oh yes, he was slightly naughty when he sang that song about S-E-X and threw in a song by the all but forgotten Biff Rose, but basically the guy was sweet and cute.

The crowd was ideal for the performer, and the performer for the crowd, as the very attentive audience didn't seem to be buzzing around the bar for refueling in the middle of sets. I must admit they were quite tuned in as they twittered at all of Johnson's repartee. Between sets, Johnson himself remarked on what a "laughy" bunch it was.

Starting out during the original rock and roll era, Johnson, now 31, began playing at the age of 13 with some friends in their own Chuck Berry-esque band. From there he moved through phases of folk, jazz, and finally classical.

Obviously, there's something from all of these thrown in for good measure, even the Dave Brubeck classic "Take Five." But the man's forte is the guitar. There is no doubt that musically he is fine and full of classical competence. Capable of intricate chords, plucking and strumming, here he is marvelous. Truthfully I think I would have very much preferred and enjoyed a classical recital by the fellow.

Johnson opened for Judy Collins in 1964 at Denver University. He remarked that this was when he knew he wanted to play to audiences larger than 2,000. Now, however, he plays mostly colleges and says he can enjoy singing his personal one to one ballads to the smaller audiences.

When asked where he would like to be musically, Johnson emphasized that he would like to "stay really with it." If this is true then I would like to see a lot less of the hootenanny influence that we left behind in the '60's.

Johnson respects Leo Kottke a great deal, calling Kottke a fine technician. Johnson as a technician is fine too, and also like Kottke in that he is somewhat backgroundish. Music that I cook dinner to.

But if you want to hear his music on records he has two albums out. His first, on Atco Records, is There is a Breeze while his current For All You Mad Musicians is on the Sanskrit label. You might tote it with you when you have your wisdom teeth out.

He can sing fairly well. He can play guitar beautifully. But for $2.25 I'd rather go bowling.

Title:Johnson's Style Offers Alternative
Venue:Gold Oakroom - U of Montana - October 29, 1975
Review:Mark Staples, Missoulian

If this Wednesday night review doesn't make print until Friday, it's because I wouldn't leave Michael Johnson's performance early enough to catch Thursday's deadline. He's just too good to let you slip away. In the comfortable, intimate setting of the Gold Oakroom at the University, this engaging folksinger offers an entertainment alternative to raucous bars and mammoth, impersonal concerts.

Johnson hails from Colorado but is currently at home on the road, playing coffeehouse shows and larger concerts, with two solo albums already recorded. The late 60s van, in which he travels, is the inspiration for one lovely song "Rooty Toot Toot For the Moon" from his album, "There Is a Breeze." Johnson says he's fantasized about driving to the moon in a car and with 140 some thousand miles on his wheels he figures he's the equivalent of over half-way there. "Course you gotta come back," he adds, "and there aren't any used car lots on the moon."

Such anecdotes are frequent in his sets and gives him an easy, natural rapport with the crowd. His rapport with his guitar is just as fine. As he moves masterfully through classical, jazz, folk, and myriad other styles. He is the best acoustic guitarist I have heard in Missoula in a long time. His resonant voice and strong songwriting blend with his instrumental virtuosity and natural stage style and allow him to present an excellent one-man, mellow show. A full house was on hand for his opening night Wednesday, and by the time of his Friday night ballroom appearance that larger room should be packed.

Many people in Wednesday's crowd seemed familiar with his songs and called for them by name. I recommend that you go and get familiar with him too.



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