Saturday, November 26, 2016

Scott Johnson's Going Somewhere

Over chords on acoustic piano, songwriter / harmonica virtuoso Scott Albert Johnson sings as a young man looking up at stars in "a dark and ghostly screen," while his companion is "looking at the spaces in between" (from "Fragments").  Other numbers on his album Going Somewhere do drive hard to get somewhere fast -- the title song most of all -- but the lyrics focus on those "spaces in between," where characters long for connection.

When Johnson pivoted from his cosmopolitan post-Harvard life back to his Mississippi roots, he drafted a song on a napkin in an airport bar: "If I Only Knew the Words."  Ten years of re-writes later, it's eloquent about what's inexpressible in a relationship, punctuated by expressive harmonica solos.

Other songs dig into characters who feel alienated.  "Jailbird" is a rip-roaring rockabilly song for a man 30 years into his sentence, regretful but upbeat. In a cover of Peter Gabriel's "I Don't Remember," Johnson shifts his voice into high gear, an octave above his main vocal line, to intensify a political prisoner's protest that he's "got no memory of anything / absolutely anything at all."  Johnson's meditation on what it means for an artificial intelligence to be "Simply Human" is reinforced by a synthetic echo of Johnson's voice that overtakes the human sound even while the harmonica solo grows increasingly spirited: an aural image of the ghost in the machine.

Johnson rounds out the set with numbers that inspire foot-stomping and dancing (I've seen both at a Scott Johnson concert).  There's a cover of "Haunt My Dreams" by Brett Winston; Johnson's paean to unbridled appetite with a catchy hook, "Gimme - gimme, gimme - gimme - gimme all!"; and "A Bigger Gun," a honky-tonk romp with a killer piano solo and a political edge.

When I first knew Scott Johnson, he was playing guitar and learning piano; but when he went pro, Johnson chose the perfect instrument.  The harmonica fits in his pocket; it doesn't present any competition except from Stevie Wonder and that recluse with the Nobel; and it's ideally suited for his theme of longing for connection.  We hear a harmonica and think either of a musician at a backwoods juke joint playing on the bandstand apart from the roiling crowd, or one at a campfire, playing in the wilderness to the night sky.

Johnson's harmonica provides my favorite moment of the CD, at the tail end of "Jailbird." After the song's clever tag line and a sly melodic quote from a Beatles tune, Johnson adds a whimsical coda on harmonica.  What instrument can sound at once so lonely and so hopeful?

(See my reflection on Johnson's earlier recording Umbrella Man.)

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