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Ady Johnson: Inheritance, nature and nurture

It’s the simplest of questions but a nightmare to answer: So what sort of stuff do you do? Ask any songwriter and the chances are the brow will furrow and the most erudite of verbal responses will most likely be prefaced by a deep sigh or a heartfelt “Errmmm…”

Sometimes, one is just too close to it – sometimes, one genuinely does not know and sometimes – as is the case with Ady Johnson I would suggest – it’s complicated. What’s in the genes and what was plucked from the ether; it’s a tangled but beautiful web to get stuck in...

Such were the glories of my, ahem, glittering performance career, that I was commonly found on the bill under the heading of “special guest”, “with support from” or just plain “and”. Usually the audience who had, inexplicably, thought it would be better to watch and listen to someone who they had both heard of and liked, were…um…kind. Sometimes we were rubbish, sometimes fair-to-middling and occasionally we blew the headliners off the stage but the audience response was less variable – good, bad or indifferent we were treated kindly but little more. That is to say, very rarely was I bottled off or beaten up in the car park, such was the low opinion of our/my performance. It is then, a thankless task, “to open”; a thankless task, a hiding to nothing and - for fans of Star Trek – a Kobayashi Maru.

Venturing out together for the first time since our daughter’s spinal surgery – still stressed, shaken and swaying from the upset only such things can deliver, - Carolyn and I took the standing room only train (I actually heard one young lady say to her friend “well, at least we’ve got somewhere to stand” – quite right dear, count yourself lucky you are not yet required to climb through the window at 70mph onto the roof…bloody luxury…) to a pre-Christmas Birmingham.

Opening that night for Scott Matthews (for it was he) was one Ady Johnson. Now, I could fib and say I hadn’t heard of him until this night but even though it would make a better story I must, er, “de-fib” and own up that I had I watched a couple of his performances on youtube prior to that night and had found the experience encouraging – fore-warned being fore-armed, eyed, skinned or whatever it is.

I’ve somewhat lazily uttered since that he “both looks a bit like Donovan and sounds like Ronnie Laine whilst he also looks a bit like Ronnie Laine and sounds a bit like Donovan” Not exactly Proust but Y’know? It’s not a bad line (and one that my old man, the newspaper editor would have liked) but it is a reductive one.

Entering the stage not reticently but with no great swagger either, it soon became obvious why Mr Johnson need not holler and whoop and give it large from the moment he hits the boards; his voice, his playing and his songs do all that quite well enough for him. Bathed upon the tiny Glee Club stage in an iridescent blue pool of light, quiet intelligence and charm, he sang songs of love and loss and our battles with time. Vocally acrobatic, dexterously gifted, he wooed, opined, commented and lamented. Chameleon like in his choice of musical settings despite the limitations of performing solo, I was getting nevertheless getting a distinct Late 60’s Small Faces, Kinks vibe; “Pink Flamingos” being one that particularly hit me squarely on the jaw. Post gig, thus encouraged and intrigued, I grabbed a quick introduction and offered the observation that I wasn’t sure exactly how to describe his music but I had really enjoyed it, before we scuttled back across town to New St. clutching our new Ady Johnson CD’s: the album “Tell the worry dolls” and ep “Thank you for the good things”.

In the arena of the repeated listen all the live signatures are there; the appealing cronkiness of fret buzz and de-tuned twangs, stamps and thumps and neck-pulls; sudden soaring falsettos or husky Marriot, occasionally Daltrey–like growls and of course, the songs themselves: unusually urban for acoustic music, there is an almost Gallic yet Bluesy element that pervades their settings. Mournful Gypsy strings swap places with the brassiest of horns to evoke smoky basement dives more than they do the misty mountain top. Although both cds have their quieter, pastoral moments, to my old ears at least, Johnson sounds at his most authentic and happiest playing percussively and singing loud – hats off to whoever engineered the recordings to stop the levels from peaking into the red as they have the great quality of sounding as if even the quiet bits are loud – not from endless cycles of normalizing and compressing – but from the way they were played; con brio!

Read, see and hear more from the difficult to describe Mr Johnson here:

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