The Eagles Ballroom, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: The first time I ever heard of Jamey Johnson was early 2009. A song came on my weekly trek through radio’s America Country Countdown. It was an unadorned ballad, sung by a deep-throated man with a true country music voice. The lyrics described old photographs from the singer’s past, lamenting that the listener should have seen these events “in color.” The song stood in great contrast to the rest of that week’s chart; this was the type of superior record that kept me listening to the country countdown. I didn’t catch the name of the singer, but the song resonated deeply with me.
The months passed; in 2010 I attended Willie Nelson’s annual Farm Aid, held that October in Miller Park, the cavernous home of the Milwaukee Brewers. The all-day event started 30 minutes earlier than advertised, we had been told, because a performer who Willie liked had offered to fly in at his own expense and do a set. Fine by me.
As usual, the Blackwood Brothers gospel quartet opened the day, after Willie’s own welcome and prayer. The lineup was strong for this 25th annual Farm Aid. During the afternoon, I enjoyed sets by Norah Jones, Amos Lee, Band of Horses, Promise of the Real, and local favorites the BoDeans. The big guns would perform that night. At one point, the emcee introduced the unbilled act that had been added at the last minute: Jamey Johnson. There were a few whoops of recognition, but nothing huge. What surprised me most was that this guy was going to perform with only his acoustic guitar. Pretty big hall for that; almost every other performer up to this point had a band for sound reinforcement.
Johnson began singing something about not being able to get his checks cashed. Hmm. Good voice; seems like I recall hearing it before. He then sang Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am.” Good choice, I thought. The large audience in the slowly filling ballpark began to take note; things got quiet. By the time Johnson sang “Set ‘em Up, Joe,” I was in disbelief about how just a man and his guitar could hold that huge space so rapt. But he did. Next, without an introduction, came the previous year’s radio hit, “In Color.” Ah. This is that guy! He closed with Hank’s “I Saw the Light” and was gone.
For me, Jamey Johnson was one of Farm Aid’s highest peaks. And that’s saying something, considering the evening included sets by Neil Young, Jason Mraz, Jeff Tweedy, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Kenny Chesney and Willie Nelson. Abundance of star power or not, it was Johnson’s set I kept talking about in the coming weeks. “You should have heard this guy!” I raved. Confident; solid; straight-ahead country music, performed with conviction. Now armed with his name and a greater awareness, I searched out Johnson’s albums.
Funny thing though, there were not that many Jamey Johnson CDs to buy. An early, self-released album had been withdrawn by the artist himself. I grabbed his two CDs that were available – The Dollar and That Lonesome Song – and got to know them well. I bought The Guitar Song the day it was released. So, why did it take me until last week to finally see Mr. Johnson again in concert? Let’s just call it bad luck and poor timing.
The concert at Milwaukee’s Eagles Ballroom had the feel of a Texas roadhouse. That is, people stood, many talked, beer was inhaled, and everybody had a good time. As the evening progressed, I was able to move closer to the stage— where the audience was more attentive. The ballroom’s dance floor was well populated, but so was the stage. Johnson tours with a steel guitar, keyboards, bass, two electric guitars, two drummers, and a female vocalist. Most surprising was a three man horn section, led by trumpeter Mart Avant. Johnson gave all his musicians room, but seemed to take special pride in featuring his band’s horns. This was evident early in the night on the saxophone duel “Heartache,” and later on “Turn the Page.”
Johnson played a generous collection of songs that the audience had come to hear, including “The High Cost of Living” and “Lonely at the Top.” Covers made up a healthy portion of the set. He performed Patsy Cline’s hit “I Fall to Pieces” at a mournful tempo. In fact — as I mentioned to a band member after the show — I was surprised how Johnson could take so many tunes at such slow tempos and never lose his audience. The musician didn’t disagree. Oh, some of these tunes rocked, make no mistake! But they often burned with slow and intense heat.
The singer also took his time with Lefty Frizzell’s murder ballad “The Long Black Veil” and, near the end of the concert, an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” sung to the chord changes of “House of the Rising Sun.” It worked. If Jamey Johnson enjoyed playing songs by his favorite artists, he also showed the crowd a few he had written for others. Most notable among these was “Give It Away,” a song that Johnson co-wrote and subsequently became one of George Strait’s stronger mid-career hits.
It was a no nonsense concert. Johnson let the music speak for itself. At no time did the performer cajole the appreciative crowd into artificial responses. As the large backing band swung through a final medley of pieces that included “This Little Light of Mine” and “I Saw the Light,” Johnson gave a brief wave of appreciation to the audience and left the stage. There was no encore; he did what he had come to do: perform a strong, two hour set of music.
One expected centerpiece of the night had been “In Color.” If Milwaukee’s Farm Aid audience listened in silent awe during this number, the Eagles Ballroom patrons took a different approach. Cell phones seemed to emerge from every pocket, and the crowd responded with great excitement. Most sang along loudly and joyously with every word, which did surprise me: Here is a melancholy ballad about sharing memories, sung back to the performer at full volume, a la the chorus of “Okie from Muskogee.” Maybe the audience needed to release some energy. The singer certainly had no problem with their enthusiasm, for at the conclusion of “In Color,” Johnson said his only words from the stage all evening: “God bless you, Milwaukee.”
I can appreciate the serious silence of this performer’s stage demeanor, and I respect his attitude of refusing to pander to show business or even audience expectations. But just a bit more verbal communication from the star would have been welcome at this show. Johnson introduced no songs by name, but neither did he ever credit the 12 members of his outstanding backing group. Late in the set, these musicians were again allowed to shine individually on Johnson’s song “God’s Problem Child.” Maybe just being in Jamey Johnson’s band is credit enough for these musicians. I know that experiencing a night of excellent, sincerely performed music was certainly enough for me. And for that I say, “God bless you, Jamey Johnson.”
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