Monday, October 22, 2007

Scott Albert Johnson: Umbrella Man

(reflection on a concert by Scott Albert Johnson and his band at 550 Blues in Macon, GA, this past Saturday night, and his CD "Umbrella Man.")

As a young teacher some 25 years ago, I sat in Jackson Mississippi's St. Andrew's Cathedral, across the aisle from young Scott Johnson's parents Albert and Barbara, who stared wide-eyed as their son sang with other sixth-grade boys, head and shoulders above them, intense and on - pitch. Their faces said it all: "Where did he come from? How did we deserve this?"

Thanks to Scott's drummer Kenny Graeber, another alumnus of my classroom at St. Andrew's School in the 1980s, I made my way down to Macon from Atlanta Saturday night, and found myself just as astonished as Albert and Barbara while Scott led his band, singing and playing harmonica.

Actually, he played multiple harmonicas, and he played the mic as an instrument, too. During a song, he'd grab a different harmonica from an array set out in a box before him, and store it under his left arm while he improvised some melody on the other one, his hands cupped around the instrument and the mic. Then, when he wanted to skip an octave, he'd make a quick trade of harmonicas, and change back again for the next phrase.

His concert included some covers, including a "Kansas City Blues," a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In," and a song by the Police. I know all the songs on the Police album "Synchronicity" solely because Scott wrote an essay about Sting's artistry back in 8th grade, and gave me his worn-out cassette tape of the album.

Other songs are collected on his CD UMBRELLA MAN, its cover art a play on Magritte's invisible man in a bowler hat, and the famous "Ce n'est pas un pipe," only Scott's parody naturally depicts a harmonica.

The song lyrics, even when they deal with different sides of romance, speak to the theme of longing for belonging. "Spaceship" expresses a longing to "jump off this planet." "Magnolia Road's" inner rhymes tell of returning to Jackson, MS from his career in D.C. -- "Tell me that old story of the power and the glory . . . Give me one good reason to make it through one more season" in his prestigious job, when what he really wants are "things that last." That phrase comes from a song "Hollywood," another evocation of the desire to make it, and the more pressing need to rediscover home.

Another angle on "coming home" is a delightful instrumental track, the only one to include piano, composed by Wynton Marsalis to pay tribute to jazz pioneer King Oliver. Scott shows off his harmonica chops.

Scott lists The Police as a musical influence, and we hear that most clearly in the clean, melancholy, rarefied sound of the guitar at the start of "What About Your Man?" which includes a simple and catchy line, addressed to a lover, that encapsulates the story: "Tonight I'm lonely, because you're not alone."

550 Blues was no place for subtleties. The small crowd grew as the evening turned to morning, and the young guitarist who traded solos with Scott got a lot of attention. Kenny, the drummer, looked more delighted to be there than anyone, twirling those sticks and taking charge of the beat like a gung-ho Marine sergeant. Before long, all the females in the house were dancing. Travis, on bass, offered harmony vocals too, and he showed an amiable presence that complemented Scott's intensity.

Their old teacher was feeling very proud, if a little out of place, like a space man just visiting this late night blues planet.

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