With multiple awards and nominations in country music, outlaw Jamey Johnson reigns supreme. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Vatican allows Johnson to borrow the popemobile for Stagecoach this weekend.
Country music provocateur, Jamey Johnson, draws some big musicians to shows whom don’t mind just being spectators, but it is getting more difficult to see him live. With each rare visit to Southern California, he tends to draw thirsty new people who claim some sort of ownership of Johnson’s soundtrack to their life movie reel, and they can be agressive in their fight to prove they are his biggest fan. The show at the usually intimate Ace Hotel was no acception, but even with the agros, it was a mind-blowing.
Uber talent and newcomer, Brent Cobb began the night with “South of Atlanta,” from his debut album Shine On A Rainy Day, produced by superstar cousin, Dave Cobb. Seeing a full room for an opener is rare in Los Angeles, let alone an opening opener, but after this first song, it was clear to see he is worth the hype. He came with a four-piece band and their sound was as southeast America as you get. By his second song, “Diggin’ Holes” which was perfectly harmonized, you could taste the sweet tea and feel the mosquita bites in the thick, soupy Georgia summer air. Cobb is a comfortable, natural performer with an unassuming presence that is both inviting and intriguing. It’s no wonder he is on this tour.
Margo Price has come a hell of a long way in just one year. Her album premeire show took place at The Hotel Café in Hollywood last year, which we were present for. The room back then was barely full as curious on-lookers came to see this speciman who had managed to get a record deal with Jack White. However, when your album is a dope as hers is, word spreads fast. Price entered the stage at The Ace, after her sleepy band, wearing sexy thigh high boots and a red sequin dress. She does flash as well as the great female legends before her. She opens her set with “About To Find Out” as she eases us into her badd-assery. There isn’t much wrong with Price, except that her band tends to look bored at times, a quality about them that has always been noticeable. “Desperate and Depressed,” seems to wake them a bit as they see the crowd is pleased. But to be honest, Price doesn’t need anyone to help her entertain. Her song “Weekender,” is one even the men in the crowd lift their hands to and when she launches into the highly anticipated “Four Years of Chances,” girls in the audience are standing and dancing in gratitude for such representation. Unfortunately, Margo’s guitar was difficult to hear for most of her set and at her strongest points, her bassist seemed to be competing with her. “This Town Gets Around” is a song that is an easy sale in Los Angeles but the entire band was revved up louder than Margo and overpowered her a little more than they should have. She recovered with “Hurtin’ on the Bottle,” where she finally put down her guitar and just engaged with the audience. They left her with a well deserved standing ovation.
There seemed to be about 30 people on stage transitioning from Price to Johnson. Having seen Johnson perform a few times in L.A. with little more than his guitar, a nine piece band was unexpected. Two drummers and a horn section, a pianist, pedal steel, and axes were all set up to usher in the royalty of outlaw country. Johnson appears with a glorious mane of hair that dominates under the spotlight like a lion. The room is standing in respect as he starts his set with “High Cost of Living,” a song from his third album, That Lonesome Song, also produced by Cobb in 2007. The album put Johnson on the map and includes other songs of high praise like “In Color.” Once Johnson is warmed up, he moves into “Lonely at the Top,” originally written by Keith Whitley but unheard until Johnson put it on his beast of an album, Guitar Song, a compilation of 25 amazing tunes. His pianist adds dimension to the live version that makes it sound like more of a blues song.
A big crowd favorite is “Can’t Cash My Checks,” and with a room nearly half full of musicians, Johnson had his own personal choir helping him out on this one. The song translates across the board of middle class Americans and hard working farm people who feel there isn’t anything you can do to make a fair living. Johnson’s southern upbringing and deep baritone make him the perfect messenger while the lead guitar adds layers of angry utterance. Johnson also honored California’s former ruler, Merle Haggard, several times throughout the evening. For “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” the lead guitarist switches up his strings for a harmonica and fills the room with a universal language. One of the drummers beats his machine with a tambourine instead of sticks, and beer sloshes through the crowd as Stetson-clad men dance to their beloved Hag tune.
Johnson stretches his intro way out for “Lonesome Song,” creating an aura of tension until a heavy backbeat gets the crowd clapping along. The horns finally make he appearance of sound we’ve been longing for since taking the stage, bringing the whole thing together. Johnson’s least popular song of the evening was “The Dollar,” from his 2006 album with the same name. While it seemed appreciated, this crowd was hungry for outlaw. Johnson moves right into “My way To You,” a song with heavy pedal steel to feed that desire, which was probably the highlight of the night. Johnson sang with more emotion than we are used to seeing from the reserved troubadour. The audience was mesmerized and the band completed a larger than life sound in the Spanish Gothic auditorium. The performance made both the Johnson purists and those just dabbling in outlaw for the first time come together as a family. He could have sang the Bible after that song and we would have all answered the alter call.
Pedal Steel and lead guitar battled it out in the hard driving song, “Macon” and Johnson does another Haggard song “Mama Tried” before delivering the long awaited “In Color.” Probably Johnson’s most well-known tune, the song won Johnson an ACM award and two Grammy nominations. The radio play it received at a time when pop country started dominating the airwaves kept the outlaw sound alive for ears that were drawn to it, which helped build the crowd present now. Johnson was able to stop singing for much of the song and let the audience take it. He follows with “This land is Your Land,” the 1940’s Woodie Guthrie folk tune. Johnson sang the left out verse of the original about “No Tresspassing,” leaving it up to us to decide what to do with those politics.
Johnson played “Mowing Down the Roses,” and everyone loved when he sang “I smoked it with Willie’s Weed,” and then he moves into “Give it Away,” giving the crowd permission to be rowdy and redneck. Just when it seems there are too many chiefs in that spotlit kitchen, Johnson brings his Grammy award-winning friend, Don Was, on stage from The Last Waltz tour they recently played together. The Bob Seger tune, “Turn The Page,” seemed to pay homage to Was’ Detroit upbringing and silenced us all with a piecing saxophone. The entire band was full throttle by the end of the song and it was as if Seger would ascend at any moment.
Johnson wrapped up his night with a string of old Gospel classics including Hank William’s “I Saw The Light,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” The ones who grew up with those songs danced and worshipped while those who didn’t sat in still admiration of what Johnson had done throughout the evening. Jamey Johnson is, no doubt, the current king of country music. The crown has been passed and the ruler has set the bar of excellence.
by Bylle Breaux / Photos by Matt Stasi