At the Civic last week, country singer Jamey Johnson classic outlaw country hewed close to southern rock, when it rocked.
With three guitars, a pedal steel player and two drummers, Jamey Johnson's band had more in common with southern rock than outlaw country when it chose to rock last week at the Civic Theatre. The band's surging power during the opening "High Cost of Living" made the song oddly aspirational for many in the crowd, even as the lyrics chronicle the main character's drug-fueled decline. Johnson was singing to the desk jockey's inner rebel, the guy whose most dramatic encounter with the police will be come while driving 30 in a school zone instead of in a motel room with a suitcase of a blow and a hooker.
That power didn't dominate the show, though. The band would bow up mid-song a number of times, but more often it was kept in check, puttering in mid-tempo, quieter numbers that were electric with tension and melancholy. Because of that, the crowd lost its hellbent-for-Friday-night vibe after a half-hour and were restlessly with Johnson as he explored folk and country staples. "You Are My Sunshine" was mournful, and "Oh Susannah" started similarly until it morphed into "Midnight Rider." In Keith Spera's review of the show, he made much of the comparison between Johnson and Willie Nelson, and rightly so. Not only does Johnson's voice echo Nelson's nasal twang at times, but he's as expressive a singer in his way. But where Nelson has a jazz singer's swing and phrases lines accordingly, Johnson's a rock singer and works with those rhythms and conventions. He also brought rock 'n' roll attitude to the stage, not giving an inch to the audience in song choices or even by speaking to them. That only gave the show additional gravitas and power for those paying attention, but it left many antsy on the floor.