Saturday, March 16, 2019

Jamey Johnson At The Wiltern | Lefsetz Letter

I didn’t want to go to the Wiltern. I’d already been back and forth to Hollywood earlier in the day. And in L.A. there’s substandard public transportation, so you have to drive, which is why we all believe Howard Stern is our best friend.

And I fired up all three map apps and compared and decided to go with WAZE, which is always funny, because of the detours. I’m on 6th Street and the app tells me to go up one block to 5th and back down Fairfax one block later to rejoin 6th. And I’ll be honest, I get angry at the people who won’t go right, who wait until the coast is truly clear…IT’S NEVER CLEAR! And you wonder why we have road rage.

But the reason I was going so early was to make sure I got a spot in the structure. It fills up really early and then there’s nowhere to park, and it’s not the safest neighborhood either, I know more than one person who’s had their car broken into there.

And I used to park underground, when Rena ran the building. But now Nederlander doesn’t even run the Greek. Time passes, and not so slowly like Bob Dylan says. I walk into the Wiltern and I don’t know a single soul. Is it me or them?

Actually, business was soft, way soft. Is it that Jamey Johnson hasn’t had a hit in eons or that L.A.’s really not a country town or both?

And it’s such a hassle going to a gig. Not only the driving and parking, which was $25, which seemed excessive, but the security. I get why people stay home. And the truth is people go to the big gigs of oldsters and hitmakers who’ve broken through, but in between…

Now the reason I went so early was to see the opening act, Marty’s new client Erin Enderlin.

First and foremost, she could sing.

And she can write. Actually, someone yelled out “Are you a songwriter?” And of course she said yes.

But Erin was a revelation. Because this is how it used to be, when it was about songs and one person and their guitar could get the message across. I’m standing there…and why they tore the seats out from the Wiltern…who declared that we must STAND to listen to music? They don’t at Disney Hall. And I’m getting into it. I’m suddenly glad I came.

But I couldn’t tell Marty how to break her. Country radio likes guys. And singer-songwriter music went out with the seventies.

Not that there aren’t singer-songwriters left, but most can’t write. Pull up the playlists on Spotify and wince. It seems the elixir has been lost.

But Erin has the next Reba cut and for her final number…

Jamey and the band came out. They duetted, it was so smooth, this is the kind of collaboration that should be featured on the Grammy telecast. But the truth is music doesn’t work on TV. You need to be there.

And Jamey Johnson sure was.

Now the guy looks like he came out of…THE SEVENTIES! Like an Allman Brother in his jeans. With his long hair and beard like he couldn’t do anything else. And he’s from Alabama and he was in the Marine Reserves and you realize…you don’t know people like this. Like Erin, who grew up in Arkansas. I mean I’ve stayed in a hotel across the river from Arkansas, but have never been there. And one night in Atlanta we took a wrong turn and ended up in Alabama, but otherwise…

Of course people live there. But so many of the coastal residents have no idea what’s going on there.

And Jamey’s featuring a ten piece band. Which makes no economic sense whatsoever, there aren’t even three hundred people there. There’s a horn section and a pedal steel player and a background singer and counting the bass player and Jamey, four guitarists.

And at first the numbers are noodling, kinda quiet. And you realize you’re at a Grateful Dead show. In that they don’t know where they’re going, you’re on an adventure together, and if you’re lucky, the building will levitate, with you in it.

Jamey’s picking out notes on his giant Epiphone. At times there’s a flute, there was even a Jew’s Harp solo, and you realize, not only can you not get this on TV, you can’t get it on wax, this is a one time only performance, and you are THERE!

Which is just about when Jamey pays tribute to Tom Petty and plays “Southern Accents,” which I get, but is not exactly the song I want to hear.

But that segues into “Room At The Top.”

Okay, these are the songs that resonate with him.

But then, the unmistakable riff… HE’S PLAYING MARY JANE!

And I have to run right down to the front of the stage, to get closer to the music, to feel it, to watch Jamey pick out the notes.

Last dance with Mary Jane
One more time to kill the pain

And I’m thrusting my arms in the air and singing along and thinking that after Erin I was contemplating leaving, wouldn’t that have been a mistake.

But then comes a super-slow version of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Yup, Jamey’s got a whole band, he’s not making real money, and he’s not even always using them!

And I’m checking And every gig is different and some songs he’s never played when…

He goes into “Willin’.” Not the Seatrain breakthrough version, not Linda Ronstadt’s take, not even the remake on “Sailin’ Shoes,” but the slow talk/sung take from the very first Little Feat LP that no one knows.

I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow
I’m drunk and dirty and don’t you know…

This is bedrock. This ain’t evanescent Top Forty, but music that lasts forever. You know every word, and unlike when I first heard it, I’ve actually been to Tehachapi, but I’m still waiting to go to Tucumcari.

And there’s a Jerry Reed cover. And Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night In Georgia.” And a Merle Haggard number. And, of course, Jamey’s cowrite of George Strait’s “Give It Away,” with the dancing matron next to me singing along with the chorus.

And then the band is chugging along with “Tulsa Time.” And you’re pinching yourself, YOU’RE ACTUALLY THERE!

Not that anybody seems to care.

There’s no backdrop, no fancy lighting, just music, the way it used to be.

And then comes the hit.

Jamey also played “Macon,” but every night he has to play “In Color.”

If it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids just trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

I’ve been scared. Of my father. Out in the elements. In my twenties, thirties and even forties, wondering where it was all going, how it was all gonna work out. And when I hear “In Color” I resonate, especially with the concept of seeing it in color. It was so much worse than the retelling.

And I’m thinking of Hal Blaine. Who had to be a security guard after his studio heyday was through.

And no one is offering Jamey Johnson a sponsorship, he ain’t a brand, he’s a MUSICIAN!

And he isn’t the only one in Nashville, but they all seem to be in Music City. On the coasts it’s all about electronics and rhythm and it’s far from the basics, humanity.

And the truth is we’ve figured out distribution, but we’re still foundering with marketing.

I was talking with Jeff Garlin yesterday and he told me you can’t reference pop culture in standup comedy anymore, most people don’t get the joke, they haven’t experienced the underlying event/show/song.

That’s right, we parade the hits like most people know and care, but they don’t.

Jeff said the only thing that resonates is real life, living, relationships, those are universal.

And that’s the essence of a country song.

And big time music has lost the plot, lost its essence, lost its ability to resonate. It’s background noise. So why bother to go to the gig?

And most people don’t, even though the total is healthy.

But it used to be an addiction, to go out to see an act without dancing and pyrotechnics. Tech does whiz-bang better than any stage show. But AI ain’t human, it can’t make your skin prickle and have you thrusting your arm in the air.

Maybe Jamey realizes it doesn’t pay to make a record. What for? To be ignored?

Maybe we’re in the pre-recording era. Maybe it’s just about singing and playing, trying to capture the zeitgeist, climbing that mountain each and every night, a new adventure each evening.

Most big acts go on the road to replicate the show for dozens of nights. It’s an endurance test, done for cash, all aligned with digital triggers. It ain’t about music, it’s about celebrity, about brand extension opportunities.

Whereas music used to be made by outlaws. People who had to do it because it was the only place they fit in.

Like Jamey Johnson.


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