So, one of the things I’ve been meaning to blog for a while now and just haven’t had the time to do so properly was the little trip Dys and I took to see one of our favorite artists play: the incredible Jonny Lang. It’s a little disappointing to try to do it now, so far removed in time, because I can’t do the sort of minute-by-minute recap that I normally would, but I hope y’all will enjoy it anyway.
I was first introduced to Jonny’s music as I was muddling through a guitar shop soon after we moved out to the Midwest. There was music playing over the shop’s stereo. At first, as typical for anyone just going about their own business in a store while music dithered quietly along in the background, I didn’t pay any attention. But it began to filter into my subconscious until I actually had to stop and pay attention. I asked the guy behind the counter who it was, and he told me.
A few weeks later, I bought his first album, Lie to Me. I was blown away by how talented and soulful this 16 year old kid sounded. It was nothing short of amazing. Shortly thereafter, his less blues-focused follow-up, Wander This World, was released. Since he’s based in Minneapolis, Jonny toured the Midwest quite a bit in the early days, and so he was playing one of the nearby universities around my birthday. So Dys bought us tickets, just to have a little something to do on a cold winter evening.
Did I say I was blown away by the album? My god. The boy was just past his eighteenth birthday, if I recall, and we were floored, flummoxed, and flabbergasted at how good he was. His stage presence between songs was that of the teenager he was – quiet, shy, self-consciously grinning…but when he hit the first note, all that shyness went out the window. He poured himself out through the guitar and microphone, and everyone in the arena knew it.
We walked out of that show saying to each other, “we will see this guy again. Every chance we get.” And we have – this concert was the fourth time we’ve seen him, and there has not been a moment that we regret it.
This show was in a smallish venue. No opening band. Chairs on the floor. It was perfect.
It ended up being a somewhat intimate gathering, which I think plays to Jonny’s love of playing for an audience. We were only about 20-25 feet from the stage, and we really felt part of what was going on. From the first clicking chords of “One Person At A Time,” everybody there was into it. Especially the guys on the stage.
For a kid who started out as a faithful old-school blues player, Jonny has undergone quite a transformation – through the blues, through pop, into Stevie Wonder-esque Motown and now into something that’s more or less contemporary gospel music. His recorded output is hit or miss, but his live performances never are. Even songs that seem a bit flat on the album, like “Bump in the Road,” he infuses with fire onstage. He’s recently switched to playing everything fingerstyle, eschewing a pick, but you’d never know it. He wails and flails with the best of them. And when he whips off into the slow-burn blues of “A Quitter Never Wins,” I don’t care who you are, you’ve gotta say “this boy can sing and play his ass off.“
Jonny has done a fantastic job of surrounding himself with fantastic musicians. His bass player, Jim Anton, always boggles my mind with his timing and how well he uses the bass as almost another percussive instrument. Drummer Barry Alexander, aside from looking like he should be a professional wrestler (Dude is huge!), plays with power and finesse without ever overplaying. But best of all, these are guys who not only love to play, but they also clearly love to play together. Check out this video Dys shot during Barry’s drum solo. Not only is Barry having fun (especially going crazy at the end), but check out Jonny and second guitarist Sonny loving life over to the side of the stage.
Each bandmember had a solo during the show, and this is what it was like during each one. All of the other bandmembers stood aside, screaming and “YEAH BOY!”‘ing and laughing and generally acting as though they were having the time of their lives. And if they’re acting, well, they need to start doing it professionally.
I mentioned this in the Monday Music linked above, but one of the themes of Jonny’s most recent, gospel-ish album, Turn Around, is hope and faith. It’s no secret that times are tough nowadays, and Jonny’s setlist not only was slanted toward those songs of hope, but his performance was, as well. Most songs had a breakdown in the middle that allowed the performers to jam a little bit, and Jonny to improvise a solo and/or sing atop it.
When he performed his hit “Red Light,” he actually slowed it all down and gave a little singing-speech about how times were hard, how things were bad, but that there was always time to stop and look around. Always time to change paths. And everything’s gonna be alright, he encouraged everyone to sing along, everything’s gonna be alright. A bit of a crib from Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” which perfectly fit both the song and the mood. It was an emotionally powerful moment for most everyone present, I think…it certainly was for Dys, who was softly crying, and for me, who was a bit choked-up and misty myself. It’s a moment that emphasized for me the power of music to bring people together, to heal, and I hope I never forget it.
Jonny plays with fire and energy, and also with love and with soul. The intro to “Breakin’ Me,” the first encore of the night, showcases the latter.
I was sad to see the show end, but I loved seeing him fire it up one more time to close the show with his old hit “Lie to Me.” Afterward we actually hung around for a bit and saw a few of the bandmembers come back out onstage to grab some things and chat with a few audience members, but finally the venue staff started to clear the room, and so we reluctantly went home. There are a few more photos at my Flickr page if you want to check ‘em out! (There would be more, but crap, I’m starting to run out of room in my Flickr photostream. Maybe I should ask for a pro Flickr account for Christmas?)
One Person At A Time
Bump in the Road
Give Me Up Again
A Quitter Never Wins
Don’t Stop for Anything
Livin’ for the City
Lie to Me
Jonny Lang (vocals, guitar)
Sonny [? I missed his last name, doggone it!], (guitar, backing vocals)
Jim Anton (bass, backing vocals)
Tommy Barbarella (keys, backing vocals)
Jason Eskridge (backing vocals, percussion)
Barry Alexander (drums)
I don’t know how much more of a commercial for Jonny I could be. Y’all go listen to a track, buy an album, but for the sake of good music, go see him play live if ever you can. Every music fan owes it to themselves to give it a shot at least once. I’ve done it four times now, and I think I speak for Dys when I say I can’t wait for a fifth.
Thanks for all the great times, Jonny.
Here’s to many more!