After entering the spotlight with teenage excitement, Johnston quickly plunged into a solemnly focused demeanor, any trace of personality emerging only briefly after each song. The Freedy fans in the crowd snatched it up hungrily, mirroring Johnston’s attitudes by oscillating between listening intently and enthusiastically laughing at not-so-funny jokes.
“I hope I didn’t hack it to death,” Johnston said after opening with an Al Green tune including, as he described, “a lot of chords.” He did butcher it, but the faithful audience didn’t seem to mind.
With no hit singles since 1994’s “Bad Reputation,” Mr. Johnston seems to fit the classic profile of a tired songwriter embittered towards all who have not recognized his unique value. Yet he is able to evade that category: after grimacing through each mournful ballad, Mr. Johnston retreats from the microphone and smiles widely, pleased with his efforts. Although his associations with Elektra Records and producer Butch Vig (of Nirvana and Garbage fame) position him within shooting distance of the mainstream, he remains an independent figure. In fact, the set included only two tracks from Johnston’s recently released “Right Between the Promises.” The rare deficit of obligatory record promotion was refreshing.
Johnston’s poignant lyrical portraits present him as a thoughtful observer of the socially unprivileged, and although most of his stories are not autobiographical, the fervor of the delivery makes it clear that Johnston is no stranger to the repeated themes of longing and loneliness.
Johnston’s vocals resembled sobbing during “You Get Me Lost,” a minor-key love song whose lyrics are paradoxically happy. A string of melancholy songs followed, but a ray of sunshine was allowed through the cloudy lineup during “The Lucky One.” In addition to a happier story, this time Johnston’s boyish voice was complemented well with a richer, warmer-sounding guitar accompaniment.
Although the performance was engaging, it was not surprising to hear the clinking of glasses and quiet chatting throughout the set.
The section of the audience that was familiar with Johnston’s work was eager to hear personal favorites, but the songs that were most enjoyed by the audience as a whole were covers. Johnston’s songwriting talent is not to be contested, but his musical faculty is little more than a vehicle to deliver the goods. Strength of pen and midwestern roots have won Johnston comparison to Bob Dylan, and the relation is justified if Dylan’s underrated mid-career work is examined.
Johnston played cover songs that fit perfectly within his persona but not always within his voice range. His rendition of Elton John’s “Rocketman” was somberly sweet and enticed sad smiles throughout the crowd, until it culminated with labored wailing and changed the audience response to restrained cringes. Johnston played “Don’t Worry Baby,” the Beach Boys hit, more tactfully, and this unadorned cover compared well with the bustling original version.
Interestingly, Johnston invited requests often but didn’t honor any of the eager pleas. He seemed tickled by the crowd’s choices, the songs which had become quietly popular within his small fan base. Johnston obviously appreciated the display of interest but had his own plans for the set.
After the predictable finale of “Bad Reputation,” Johnston stepped off the stage, showered by applause. He stepped back on the stage to play his encore after only a few moments-perhaps because he doesn’t like the “Show over? House lights?” bullshit, perhaps because he’s learned not to push it. He then pulled off a lovely version of the Carpenters’ “Close to You” and this time left the stage without looking back, putting away his guitar and heading to the bar.