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Jamey Johnson w/ Josh Thompson @ The Riverside Theater

Dec. 2, 2010

Dec. 7, 2010
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Without any fanfare or buildup from the FM personality MCing the concert, Jamey Johnson bounded onto the stage at the Riverside Theater Thursday night. Twenty-five songs later, he made his exit as a hero, looking at an audience from which he had drawn the kind of emotional breadth few in today’s commercial country music can summon from their listeners.

Doubtless he was already a hero to many in the audience for his spot headlining WMIL's Toys for Tots benefit concert. His latest album, the double-CD/triple-LP TheGuitar Song,kicks the seat of Nashville's star-making machinery by delivering music redolent of the ’70s outlaw movement, but with fresh autobiographical twists and a redoubling on traditional genre influences. And, oh yes, he also kicks Nash Vegas where it sits by bringing a vivid reality about life the likes of which that star-making machine often knows little.

No hat-act, boot-scoot cutie has the gumption to tackle songs about a farmer growing marijuana to make ends meet ("Can't Cash My Checks") and implied murder balladry ("Poor Man Blues") while likewise delivering father maxims ("By the Seat of Your Pants") and general exercises in melancholy ("Even the Skies Are Blue")—all without seeming clichĂ©. Johnson applies a nearly world-weary authenticity with his deep, bassy baritone emanating from atop the most glorious beard in country since The Oak Ridge Boys’ William Lee Golden. Without a word of between-tune small talk, he connected with his rapt audience to the point of encouraging them to sing not only a chorus but also the verse of the biggest of his hits so far, the poignant tale of a grandfather's memories in photographic form, "In Color."

About as much of Johnson's set was comprised of remakes as originals. Among those he recorded for Guitar, including Mel Tillis' "Mental Revenge" and the Kris Kristofferson standard "For the Good Times," he and his six-piece band employed covers by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, ZZ Top and Bob Seger—the lot of which he invested with the kind of conviction that connotes both respect for the source material and the desire to make the songs his own. It was something of a disappointment, though, that he saw fit to give an impassioned spin on Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," but didn't broach any of his own worthwhile gospel numbers.

Cedarburg's maker of recent country-radio biggies, Josh Thompson, may not command the force of personality to get away with just a few words of thanks at the end of his stage time, per Johnson, but he knows how to get the party started. Being local may help, but so does material that takes on many of the format's bases of subject matter. You've heard Miranda Lambert sing about small-town celebrity and Hank Williams Jr. address rural pride with more deftness, but Thompson has charm and youth to spare. And he can always get his crowds to raise their cups of barley pop with his indelibly rousing "Beer on the Table."


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