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concert poster Michael Johnson

Concert Reviews

1976 - 1979
Title:Michael Johnson
Venue:Northrop Auditorium - Mpls, MN - April 10, 1976
Review:Gary Frederickson, Minnesota Daily

  I went to Michael Johnson's concert at Northrop Auditorium Saturday looking forward to his mixed bag of good time songs and sensitive lyrics as well as his between numbers low key brand of humor, but came away most impressed with the versatility of his instrumental work particularly in the first set. Zipping through "One Note Samba" or displaying a masterful touch on a beautiful Bach number (the separate treble and bass melodies perfect for the schizophrenic mind as he put it), it all fit together nicely.

He opened with "Troubled For You" from his second album, and ran through Paul Desmond's "Take Five," which he said was his best attention grabber in the smoky bars in Denver where he's frequently played.

The addition of more jazz and Spanish influences in his guitar work made for a much broader sound than he displayed last June at his Guthrie concert. There Is a Breeze, Johnson's first album on Atco, has recently been reissued on the local Sanskrit label and some of its up-tempo songs, particularly "Got You Covered," were rousingly played early in the evening. Randy Newman's ironic drop the big one (atomic bomb) ditty seemed an amusing surprise to the crowd and a straightforward "Here Comes the Sun" (long a Johnson mainstay) was both touching and optimistic.

Saying he was going to slip into a tux and return for a second set, he appeared in formal attire except for his bright blue athletic shoes. But the closing numbers, save for a rambling version of "The Good Life" and a touchingly restrained "On the Road," began to sound very similar. A rambling narrative about a poet, who becomes famous posthumously, was strained. Much of the fire and spunk that contrasts with his pensive numbers were missing.

Johnson's outstanding instrumental ability gives him an identity beyond that of many singer-guitarists. His impressive first set - with its use of varying tempos, accents, and touches that added to his studio versions and allowed him to stretch out some guitar runs - was a perfectly paced example of his best work. If you aren't familiar with Johnson, There Is a Breeze is well worth a listen. It's one of those records you'll go back to regularly.

Title:Michael Johnson
Venue:Northrop Auditorium - Mpls, MN - April 10, 1976
Review:Alfrieda Gabiou, Insider (June 1976)

  If Michael Johnson's first Northrop concert carried more than the normal amount of anticipation it was quickly dissipated as Johnson bridged the impersonal atmosphere of the large auditorium with his low keyed performance and personal appeal.

Perched atop a high stool with his guitar cradled close to his chest, Johnson quickly moved from "Troubled For You" to "One Note Samba." With the formality imposed by the hall cracked, it then quickly crumbled entirely.

Johnson kept the mood friendly and relaxed by seemingly refusing to be impressed by the hall itself. He was comfortable enough to ask the crowd if it wanted to hear a joke and when he traded his comfortable garb for a tux that, as he said, looked borrowed rather than rented, the audience loved it. In breathing his own brand of life into the concert, Johnson showed he could play the hall like the college lunchrooms of earlier days.

Yet the biggest surprise was the skill Johnson showed on three six-stringed guitars he used. His classical guitar training was evident. It carried many of the unrecorded tunes that made up the bulk of the concert and gave a fresh touch to the other songs.

A piece by Bach had Johnson doing a duet with himself, each hand playing a different part at the same time. It nicely showcased Johnson's ability which extended to jazz, bossa nova, up tempo and country styles as well. The intensity of his playing on "Got You Covered" made it a notable standout.

The varied fare, served with a generous amount of wit, provided an entertaining concert.

Yet for me something was missing. Perhaps a pleasant evening is enough to be satisfied with but "There Is A Breeze, "Johnson's first album, raised higher expectations.

Occasional numbers in the concert - "In Your Eyes" and "On The Road" (because I was familiar with them?) like the songs already mentioned - showed the variety that makes the record listenable. But the interest they generated was not enough to make me tell friends they must catch Johnson's next show.

It's not that I was looking for the next superstar so much as I wanted to hear the real Michael Johnson. Was "Breeze" or "For All You Mad Musicians," his second album, the truer reflection of his work?

"Musicians" had made me more curious than sure about Johnson. The songs failed to hold my attention and tended to be a bit like benedictions. "Breeze," on the other hand, was livelier, more interesting and made me think I had lost interest in Johnson too quickly.

With my opinions of the album divided, I looked to the concert for some kind of answer. While there were enough songs for a good album, the amount of undistinguished material and Johnson's comments between songs tended to obscure them.

If his remarks provided continuity, the pattern of song, comment, song, comment, de-emphasized the songs and became monotonous. Johnson's changing use of guitars required frequent tunings but not conversations almost everytime.

In any event, after the first few selections it seemed Johnson's humor, rather than the songs, provided the pace and tone of the concert. So much so that when he gave a serious introduction it seemed awkward and out of place.

Still the biggest weakness was the songs themselves. Most of them were simply outclassed, not strong enough to shine from the matrix around them and no match for the interest Johnson's guitar playing garnered.

On the whole I remember the graffiti he repeated from a bathroom wall better than I can recall any specific lines or compelling imagery in the unfamiliar songs. Like the tunes on "Musicians" they blended together, creating the blandness I thought "Breeze" had demonstrated he could overcome. Hence my disappointment.

Obviously my reservations say more about me than they do about Johnson. I'm not cynical enough to believe he was given a standing ovation twice by an estimated 3,000 people because they wanted another tune or two for their money.

And if the concert did not make me enthusiastic about Johnson there are enough good things about "Breeze" to make me look forward to his third album.

"There Is A Breeze" was originally put out by Atco Records in 1973 but was withdrawn after a year and a half. Johnson then purchased rights to it and put it out on his own Sanskrit label.

The album brings together songs by Jacques Brel, Jackson Browne, Biff Rose, Johnson's friends, brother Paul, sister-in-law Amy, who also goes by Crow on "Musicians," and a cut from "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught." The range of styles and viewpoints, the different tempos, succeed in keeping attention, while Johnson's gentle or understated treatment remains evident on many.

There is the somber and haunting "Old Folks" as well as the pied piper image in "In Your Eyes." They along with "Rooty Toot Toot For the Moon," "On The Road," "Got You Covered" and "Study In E Minor" open up the record.

Leo Kottke's bottleneck guitar passages on "In Your Eyes" add a special touch as do the fuller backgrounds on all the songs. For anyone wondering about Johnson, "Breeze" is a good introduction.

The concert at Northrop showed he can play large halls and "Breeze" shows his potential, but his next album, due this summer, could say the most about Johnson.

Title:Michael Johnson
Venue:O'Shaughnessy - St. Paul, MN - November 25, 1977
Review:Fred Grittner, Twin Cities Reader

  Michael Johnson's sellout first show last Friday night at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium was a pleasant surprise, providing a clear picture of how much he has improved as a performer in the past three years. Gone is the intense, melancholic cabaret singer, replaced by a relaxed and confident interpreter of pop, jazz, and contemporary folk material. Where I would have appreciated a little more intensity in his performance, overall he showed himself to be a consummate guitarist and an engaging singer.

What separates Johnson from the majority of singer-guitarists is his ability to really play the instrument. Using a nylon-stringed classical guitar and classical fingerpicking techniques, he is able to fill out a tune, making it sound as if there is more than one guitar. At his best, Johnson rearranges a familiar song and makes it new. At his worse, he can overdo it, allowing his technical skills to overshadow the song's beauty.

Friday night he was at his best, playing simply on Randy Newman's haunting ballad "Marie," and intricately on John Martyn's "May You Never." The latter tune is a good example of Johnson's musical progress: Three years ago he played it straightforwardly; now he toys with the phrasing, creating interplay between the voice and guitar on the last line of the refrain. He's made the song his own.

The first set's highpoints came when he performed material by well-known songwriters. Besides Newman and Martyn, Johnson did a subdued cover of Tom Waits' "San Diego Serenade" and an incredibly fast-paced "Here Comes the Sun." When he relied on lesser-known writers, the performance suffered. The weak "Best Friend - The Unicorn Song" was rescued from oblivion by the use of a specially strung guitar, tuned one octave higher than concert pitch. Plucking on the strings with great care, Johnson created a harpsichord-like accompaniment, one that perfectly matched the innocence of the child song lyrics.

Ridding himself of voice problems that robbed him of some of his power earlier, Johnson shifted into high gear in the second set with "One Note Samba," a Brazilian song popularized during the bossa nova craze of the early '60s. Taking the bridge at break-neck speed, he suddenly stopped, then started again; all the while his guitar mimicked the voice's contortions, until he was ready to resume singing the verse. This guitar-voice communication reached its zenith during "Bluesette," another fine jazz-pop song of the early '60s. Johnson played the beautiful changes with a jazzy inflection, laying a solid foundation from which his vocals could rise. As his voice soared confidently, it made me realize that he is capable of producing much more complex music.

Despite requests from the audience, Johnson stayed away from most of the songs that made him such an incredible success in the Twin Cities. That was probably a good decision - one old favorite, "Got You Covered," still came across musically, though the lyrics seemed curiously outdated. Whatever Johnson's reasons for shying away from old tunes, I am glad he gave time to local writers like Mark Henley - his "Two in Love" deserves a wider audience.

While Johnson's relaxed stage manner is ingratiating, it seems to have robbed him of some of his intensity. On certain familiar tunes I waited for the tension to build, but nothing happened. I don't believe Michael Johnson has become mellow, but such a development isn't unlikely. (In all fairness, he may have just been cold - on a below zero night the maintenance people ought to turn up the heat a bit. The standing ovation was as much out of self-preservation as for the performance.)

Title:Michael Johnson
Venue:O'Shaughnessy - St. Paul, MN - November 25, 1977
Review:Don Clark, Minnesota Daily, U of MN

  If I were to describe Michael Johnson to someone who hadn't heard of him, I'd tell them to think of a musical Robert Redford. I picture Johnson as a medieval troubadour, singing love songs, seducing queens, fighting duels (and winning, of course). Friday night at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium I had the distinct feeling that at least half of the audience was carrying on some sort of mental amour with the blond figure on stage, who adeptly made love with his guitar and voice.

Who could blame them? Personally, it was one of the few times perfection has intruded on my ability to enjoy a concert, making me want to find faults. But no significant faults could I find.

Since his boyhood musical initiation in Denver, Johnson has compiled impressive credits. A winner of a national talent contest while in college, Johnson veered off into folk music, eventually playing with the Back Porch Majority and John Denver. Study under Louis Bonfa's guidance at a guitar conservatory in Barcelona testifies to his dedication as well as natural talent. Johnson also spent about a year in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris. Living close to the Twin Cities, (and with three locally-produced solo albums) Johnson has come to be one of Minnesota's favorite sons.

Johnson showed Friday his local acclaim is not unjustified. With clear, controlled singing, Johnson painted highly-wrought love scenes, the work of fine contemporary composers. Poetic compositions, such as Thom Burke Bishop's "Mr. Arthur's Place" and "Testament to Amelia" by Miguel Llobette, received subtle and delicate treatment. Cloudy and sentimental, these two pieces complemented the lighter paeans to love that made up most of the show.

I find Johnson's guitar accompaniment more impressive than his vocal work. With right hand technique clearly derived from classical study, Johnson's picking drives and flows behind his voice. Sophisticated things, like playing subtle harmony to underscore the sung melody, or whole sections played with intricate harmonics, all executed flawlessly.

Though sticking to classical guitar for most of the evening, on two songs Johnson picked a small steel-string which had the most amazing sound I've heard on an acoustic. Few six-string guitars can be made to sound like a harpsichord.

Jazz and bossa nova influences, presumably from the tutelage of Louis Bonfa, spiced up the folky repertory. Raun MacKinnon's "Circle of Fifths," Jobim's "One Note Samba" and Toots Thielman's "Bluesette" worked nicely with Johnson's mellow voice and fluid chording. Johnson described his love of "fluff-jazz," eschewing complexity yet still with that swing, which seemed appropriate terminology; Johnson's approach is primarily limited to songs to imaginary lovers, the class mode of jazz lyricists.

I wish that Johnson would occasionally develop a persona in his selections, rather than the abstract metaphor-world of "Here Comes the Sun," one of his standards. Though he sang three songs from the masters of the persona technique, Tom Waits, Randy Newman and John Prine, Johnson failed to get into the characters of the protagonists. For example, when he sang Newman's "Marie," there was none of the feeling of a drunken, pitiable redneck. Sure it works as a straight love song, but there is little power. My problem is that, finally, I have trouble sympathizing with such a clean and handsome personality. Could he possibly have troubles?

Besides the good news of two sold-out concerts, Johnson is in the process of signing with Columbia Records. The task is now to market his winning voice and guitar to a wider audience. Rumor has it Johnson's next album will be a joint production venture by Peter Yarrow and Phil Ramone, nationally-known producers. With a little luck, Johnson may cease to be a cult hero, ascending to the plateau of household word. It couldn't happen to a more talented guy.

Title:Michael Johnson: Musings From The Head and Heart
Venue:Hamline University - St. Paul, MN - February 10, 1978
Review:Greg Linder, Twin Cities Reader

  You could call Michael Johnson mellow. You could call him a stubborn romantic, and chances are you'd be right, because Johnson is an interpretive singer and guitarist who draws on a subterranean body of musical literature written in great part by songwriters who share (at least momentarily) his urbane and romantic view of lifetimes. "Love will get you through times of no sex," Johnson sings, and it's typical of his preoccupation with things timeless rather than momentary, "better than sex will get you through times of no love." The slogan belongs to Tom Rapp, but the philosophy parallels Johnson's own.

Two days before Johnson's Feb. 10 appearance at Hamline University's Norton Fieldhouse ("fieldhouse" in this case being a euphemism for gymnasium - Hamline has no adequate theatrical facility), the student coordinator of the event informed me that only 350 tickets had been sold. By the evening of the 10th, though, the line outside the fieldhouse stretched for nearly two-and-a half blocks, and it's my estimate that 1800 people finally crowded into the bleachers, and onto the gymnasium floor.

At about 8:30, Johnson took the stage, which consisted of several cafeteria tables pushed together, with a purple velour curtain hung behind. A line from his second song assumed a greater irony of its own under the circumstances: "Ain't dis da Ritz, ain't dis da Ritz Hotel..."

There followed two hours of musings from the head and music from the heart of Michael Johnson. A song called "Best Friend - The Unicorn Song", about a child who's ridiculed because he communes with the North Star, and who whiles away the hours with a unicorn that happens to be his best friend. A medley of classical instrumentals called "Testament to Amelia," beautifully performed, and Randy Newman's "Marie," an uncharacteristically direct confession of love in which the singer has to get drunk in order to say what he's feeling. John Martyn's "May You Never," a moving expression of best wishes to his close friends: "May you never lose your woman overnight/ You're just like my very own brother to me/ You know that I love you true I do/ And you don't talk dirty behind my back/ And I know that there's those that do." Johnson's vocals are suitably warm, clear and compelling, and his sophisticated acoustic guitar arrangements evidence his thoughtfulness and versatility as an instrumentalist.

Songs like "Mr. Arthur's Place," "Circle of Fifths," and "Movin' in the Same Circles" demonstrated Johnson's ever-increasing proclivity for sentimental statements. Like Judy Collins, he scrupulously chooses his material, opting most often for "art songs" that attempt to transcend pop vapidities in search of something more profound. These songs, while they offered his audience an opportunity to join him in an emotional communion, can be very draining and somber, occasionally a little pretentious, and not very much fun. Realizing this, Johnson threw in a few lighter numbers to clear the air: "Ain't Dis Da Life" and "You Sure Do Have a Pretty Fantastic Bod," a pair of crazy observations written by Chicago-based songwriter Mike Smith. "One Note Samba," an affectionate nod in the direction of pop-jazz. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," sung entirely without cadence, and introduced as "the song nobody can sing along with." Johnson's conversations with the crowd were also entertaining, offering wondrous comments like "I wonder if God grades on a curve," and "I think there will always be an overpopulation problem, because screwing is obviously more fun than dying."

It's this kind of balance that Johnson could use a bit more of. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being mellow, reflective and romantic-we need that kind of performer to restore some sanity to our perspective on the jitter and jangle of the '70s music scene and on the Blitzkrieg confusions that mere survival can thrust upon us. Johnson is already the master of much of the emotional spectrum-he's even capable of making us laugh, getting the adrenaline flowing, making us want to dance. The worst thing I could say about a splendid performance is that it might be wise to do so more often.

Title:Michael Johnson in Roxy Concert
Venue:The Roxy - Los Angeles, CA - September 7, 1978
Review:Richard Houdek, Los Angeles Times

  Michael Johnson, the singer and guitarist noted for his recent recording success with the ballad, "Bluer Than Blue," made an impressive local debut Thursday at the Roxy.

A product of several years' obvious good seasoning in the Midwest, Johnson offers a reasonably well-developed baritone voice that he savors rather than tortures. He also showed fine instrumental musicianship and excellent instincts for such necessities as intonation. Johnson's appealing, offhanded sense of humor served him well in relaxed, comfortable moments between songs.

As might be expected the hour set was abundant with material from his new EMI album, including "Bluer Than Blue" and its original single flip side, a dirgelike version of "Almost Like Being in Love" with enough rubato to startle either Lerner or Loewe.

Some of Johnson's uptempo choices - "Sailing Without a Sail" and "Dancin' Tonight" - are more ordinary. His proper metier appears to be the romantic ballad, often of remembrance, and regret, for times lost or that could have been. Dick Pinney's song "Walk Me Round Your Garden" provided enough tear jerking thoughts for the tenderhearted, while retaining an interesting musical underpinning filled with fascinating accidentals. Johnson's parody of the worst in country music was good-natured while producing faithfully the doleful quavering voice and the predictable lyrics.

The show was backed by a four-man rhythm section led by Bill Barber, who explored keyboards and doubled with superb flute obbligatos. Johnson was best, however, in an atmosphere of simplicity, when the lights weren't changing color syllabically and he was alone with his voice and his guitar.

Title:Michael Johnson
Venue:Northrop Auditorium - Mpls, MN - October 14, 1978
Review:Martin Keller, Twin Cities Reader

  The Twin Cities metropolitan music scene this month has been so richly diverse and crammed with so many heavies that it has felt like we were living on the "third coast" of the country. Everyone from John Lee Looker to the Milestone Jazzstars to Dylan and on to Pere Ubu and Willie Nelson will have been in town by Halloween. Just more examples of the good life in Minnesota. Michael Johnson's full house performance at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis Oct. 14 seemed to epitomize the lackluster tendencies of a large segment of concertgoers in this musical marketplace.

As an entertainer, singer-songwriter, and guitar player, Johnson is confident and well suited for the role. His comfortable stage presence and singing style, although not new by any stretch of even the fullest imagination, does seem to appeal to people, and those same people are in the process of making Michael Johnson a star. Although he consistently joked about his new fame (daring even to point out that he has "a little disdain for the Top 40"), nearly all of his material seemed directed toward our anesthetized radio ears. It's nice when a man can make some money at what he does, but this man doesn't do very much, relatively, for his money.

Artistically, Johnson is an adept guitarist. He is able to mix a classical style with innovative jazz runs in a pop-folk vein. His baritone voice, however, is so dry cleaned and unexciting that both his original songs and covers like "Here Comes the Sun" blended into some hopeless beige paint-by-number construction. Throughout the evening, Johnson sounded like Kenny Rankin, an older and more proficient musician whose style and arrangements Johnson affected and usurped with numbing monotony. Johnson's vapid version of "In the Name of Love" as well as his insipid ballads about blind love seemed to render love deaf and dumb as well.

The highlights of the 100-minute concert came when Johnson performed "Almost Like Being in Love" from the Broadway musical Brigadoon, and the only truly moving song that night was "Old Folks" by the late Jacques Brel. On Brel's stark modern love song, Johnson for the first time in the whole evening successfully coupled an accurate interpretation of the feeling in the words with excellent guitar accompaniment during the completion of an acoustic set that dominated nearly half the show.

Later, backed sturdily by a selection of three-and-four-star musicians, Johnson blatantly dished out house favorites "Walk Me Round Your Garden," "Movin' in the Same Circles" and "Rooty Toot Toot For the Moon." "Bluer Than Blue," Johnson's big breakthrough number that has as many sterling hooks as a bait shop, elicited approval from a broad age group that seemed to own the entire collected works of M. Johnson. Bill Barber's craftmanship on piano and other instruments gelled nicely with Flim Johnson's spirited and versatile bass style, while Bill Berg's talents on drums seemed to have no context for exposition.

Johnson's new single release, "Sailing Without a Sail" contained the same changeless melodic phrasing as most of his other material, and proved again to be full of a listless passion, an innocence without danger, an afternoon snuffed out by excessive laxity. The Michael Johnson concert was marred by so much mediocre mellowness that it could have been awarded a Minnesota housekeeping seal of approval. I half-expected a state senator to join Johnson onstage for the Gopher's theme song. Then I remembered there was a hockey game across town that was, in all likelihood, more exciting.

Title:Michael Johnson at Northrop
Venue:Northrop Auditorium - Mpls, MN - October 14, 1978
Review:Jon Bream, Minneapolis Star

  A hit song and a band have not changed Michael Johnson, the local boy who recently made good. In his homecoming concert Saturday before a near-capacity audience at Northrop Auditorium, the Minnetonka singer-guitarist gave one of his typical engaging performances.

Backed by an understated quartet, Johnson, with his warm voice and easy sense of humor, might have recalled Michael Franks, Kenny Rankin or Al Jarreau. But Johnson has neither the musical humor of Franks, the musical finesse of Rankin nor the vocal pyrotechnics of Jarreau.

Johnson's approach to song interpretation seems more practiced than inspired. In other words, the soft love songs he sings don't demand much passion. In fact, it wasn't his songs but his friendly personality and his glib and often self-deprecating sense of humor that carried the show.

Actually, for a while, it seemed as if Johnson, who extended his concert to two hours, would wear out his welcome with too many solo numbers. (What works well in an intimate coffeehouse doesn't often transfer effectively to a spacious, impersonal auditorium.) Finally, his band returned for "Bluer Than Blue" (which was more effective without the strings heard on the hit recorded version) and then Johnson coasted to a homecoming victory.

Title:Johnson's Baritone Fills the FAC
Venue:Kent Concert Hall - Utah St Univ - May 2, 1979
Review:Roland Miller, The Utah Statesman

  Wednesday night USU was privileged to be the host for Michael Johnson's first concert in Utah. It won't be his last. He filled the Kent Concert Hall with his exquisite guitar work and powerful baritone voice.

Michael's style is impossible to pin down. He plays classical-jazzy pop with folk thrown in. In an interview he said, "Blues has sort of made me a pop artist. I've always had a little bit of jazz in me and I play classical right hand on music that is not really classical. I believe in moving bass lines."

Michael used a number of different tunings to achieve his moving bass lines. He performed works from a variety of styles and composers, from Randy Newman's "Political Science," Paul Desmond's "Take Five," Jacques Brel's "Old Folks," to George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."

He also played songs by some lesser known musicians. "Ain't Dis Da Life" by Mike Smith, "Rooty Toot Toot For the Moon" by Greg Brown, and "Love And Sex" by Tom Rapp are samples.

Some of the more moving songs he performed were "Rose," "There Is A Breeze," and "Maria," with music by guitarist Francisco Tarrega and words by Randy Newman.

On the lighter side he displayed his talents on tunes with titles like "Gimmie That Wine," "The Wonderful World of Sex," and "You Sure Do Have a Pretty Fantastic Bod" rounding out his performance.

Commenting about his more serious pieces he said, "Musicians, dancers and actors are in a form of art that is temporal. It takes time to watch and perform it. It's not repeatable. It's not like painting where you can leave your mistakes at home and bring out your best. You have to be consistent as a temporal performer. If your heart isn't in it, you have to put it in. If you go through the whole song without waking up, I believe people can sense that."

The crowd on Wednesday was enthusiastic and receptive, especially considering that there haven't been many concerts of this format at USU. Hopefully the new entertainment committee will continue to produce events of this caliber.

Title:Talent In Action: Steve Gibb/Michael Johnson
Venue:Tennessee Theatre - Nashville, TN - May 25, 1979
Review:Kip Kirby, Billboard

  This double billing offered two exceptional performers plus the backing of Nashville's finest studio musicians in a setting made to order May 25.

Although the hall was far from full, those who attended were treated to an outstanding evening of entertainment provided by Gibb and Johnson.

Gibb's opening hour-long 15 song show combined a lively selection of material from his recent Clouds album, including his latest single, "Don't Blame It On Love," and spotlighted his breezy expertise on piano. His songs are universal scenarios that blend slice-of-life situations with the common denominator of everyday human emotions. Gibb uses his voice effectively to capture a sob, a wavering tenderness, a poignant note of love.

Songs such as "Look What You've Done," "Whiskey Dreams and Nursery Rhymes" and "She Believes In Me" won enthusiastic audience reaction and brought Gibb back for an encore.

Johnson took the stage as somewhat of an enigma: although he scored heavily this past year with "Bluer Than Blue," "Almost Like Being In Love" and "Sailing Without A Sail," his own personal concert appearances have been relatively scarce.

He lost no time in winning the audience over with a dazzling display of his acoustic guitar prowess, highly stylized vocal phrasings and his unexpected sense of humor between numbers.

Johnson held his own brilliantly throughout the solo portion of his set with songs such as "Got You Covered," "Oh, Boy" and "25 Words Or Less" from earlier LPs. By the time he was joined onstage by a five-star cast of musicians that included his producers Steve Gibson and Brent Maher, Johnson had capably proved himself as powerful a live performer as he is on vinyl.

He exhibited a skillful mastery of jazz, classical and pop techniques through songs such as "Foolish," "Let This Be A Lesson To You" and the unusual "Blackmail."

The 75-minute, 16-song set earned Johnson a resounding ovation and proved him a performer completely at home in the environs of center stage.

Title:Michael Johnson Can Shine At Pickin'
Venue:O'Shaughnessy - St. Paul, MN - December 28, 1979
Review:Carl Diltz, St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press

  Judging singer-guitarist Michael Johnson by his hit song, "Bluer Than Blue," one might think, oh my, what a sappy moaner.

But his two concerts Friday night in the College of St. Catherine's beautiful and acoustically superb O'Shaughnessy Auditorium - I saw the second show - painted a somewhat different picture.

Johnson is a very good guitarist, a singer of literate, subtle contemporary ballads and a skillful and evocative, if somewhat monochromatic, vocalist.

He did two sets, the first being livelier, opening with Greg Brown's "Pilot Me" from Johnson's first and to my ear, best 1973 album, "There Is A Breeze."

"IT'S A GOOD thing I know a lot of good songwriters," Johnson remarked -- a point well taken.

He has a knack for finding songs that fit his voice well. Biff Rose's "Got You Covered" is an excellent example. Johnson has a way with long vowels, drawing them out like molasses until they slip off the spoon. Then he'll shift tempos into a bright rhythm, moving from pretty guitar embellishments to strums with punchy bass lines.

When a song is purely pretty, the results are less satisfying. On his favorite Beatles' song, "I Will," his voice drones a bit and wears thin, though it is still more powerful and dynamic in person than his records would indicate.

HIS LOVE SONGS tend to sophisticated wistfulness. The guy seems to have the blues a lot. Actually, he's married and about to become a father but in his songs, his girl, with few exceptions, has left him. Sometimes you wish he'd get mad and tell her to go fly a kite - he did once.

But there is relief from this dreamy lost love. His guitar-playing ability got a chance to run with the ball on an instrumental he said was half of a guitar duet he wrote with Leo Kottke. Where he's a better singer than Kottke, he's not as good a guitarist, but that's no criticism. His nimble-fingered picking was an exciting part of the show.

Johnson's sense of humor varied the action of Randy Newman's "Political Science" - an "Iranic" song, he quipped - and on two Mark Henley ditties.

HIS EXPLORATION of Latin rhythms, "One Note Samba" and a Trinidadian lament (the first of his two-song encore), provided a sharp contrast to the pathos of Jacques Brel's "Song For Old Lovers." The latter was the most moving song of the show.

Johnson is a personable, unassuming stage personality intent on his playing but funny enough with comments between songs to keep the mood from lingering too long in the blues. "Bluer Than Blue," by the way, sandwiched in the middle of the first set, was not one of his better songs.

Because Twin Citian Leo Kottke didn't give his "annual" holiday concert, it would seem Michael Johnson, who lives in Minnetonka, took over this year. Let's hope Johnson makes it an annual affair. Or, is it too much to ask if they could give us both parts of that duet next year?



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