The New York Times - Jamey Johnson show review
Jamey Johnson at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Thursday.
By Nate Chinen
October 9, 2009
Jamey Johnson was drawling his way through a rueful country waltz at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Thursday night, and his audience, small but boisterous, just kept up the din. Not that he seemed to mind. On reaching the end of the tune — “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” one of two Waylon Jennings covers on his most recent album, “That Lonesome Song” (Mercury Nashville) — Mr. Johnson raised his plastic cup and flashed a crooked smile.
“Did you ever think you’d see me in Brooklyn?” he said with a chuckle (and saltier language). Then, after waiting for the responding roar to subside: “Me neither.”
It was kickoff night for CMT on Tour, a package presented by Country Music Television, now in its eighth year. And in this unlikeliest of settings, Mr. Johnson gradually made himself at home, loosening up as his set rolled along. By the time he called his fellow headliner, Randy Houser, to join him at the microphone, he had led a singalong and accepted an offering — whiskey shots, it seemed — from the foot of the stage. What came next was an affirmation of core values: proud-hearted songs by Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels and the Marshall Tucker Band, along with “Still Doin’ Time,” a hit for George Jones.
Mr. Johnson, an inveterate stoic, has rooted his own songwriting career in a particular country music lineage: “Somewhere Between Jennings and Jones,” as he puts it in the final track on “That Lonesome Song.” Here he played just about every other song from the album, digging into bleary remorse, bitter retribution and, in “The Last Cowboy,” a brew of unsweetened nostalgia (“Ever since Waylon/I can’t find no one/To buy into sad country songs”). Whatever the song, he trusted the gravity of his voice, rarely straining against the dimensions of a plainspoken, deep-chested baritone.
And the two songs he previewed from his forthcoming album, due next year, suggested a natural extension of his style. “Back to Macon” had his five-piece backing band stomping through a Southern-rock groove, with room for thoughtful embellishment from the steel guitarist Eddie Long.
“Nothing Is Better Than You” took the shape of a brokenhearted plaint, emotionally reserved until the onset of the bridge, which opened up a vein:
We once had it all
Together, at least
That’s what I thought
Til I wound up alone.
Like most of Mr. Johnson’s confessions, this one suggested a granite exterior, against which only the harshest tide of feeling ever manages to make an impression.
Mr. Houser, in an opening set, aired his share of sentiment too. But he’s a far more affable presence than Mr. Johnson, as much a crowd pleaser as a ruckus maker. So his signature ballad — “Anything Goes,” though not in the Cole Porter sense — felt conspicuously mannered.
He was in stronger form at the end of the night, belting “Can’t You See,” the Marshall Tucker Band song. But that was with Mr. Johnson at his side, making a counterweight of ruthless understatement and hardened restraint.