Greg Johnson says every song has a story and he proved exactly that with some surprises and revelations that enchanted and intrigued the audience at Auckland's Galatos along with Kiwi alt folk band Eyreton Hall.
Toni Randle and her brother Tim Randle opened the night with a short, poignant and heartfelt set. Toni's melodic voice coupled with Tim on bass captivated the audience with songs about loss, grief and love.
The band's title track from their upcoming album Spaces on Marigold Music was a hard one for Toni to sing each time due to the emotions tied with the song but it never ceases to connect with one's soul. A reimagined cover of Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was another interesting track that showcased Eyreton Hall's ability to connect subtly but effectively with an audience.
Greg Johnson brought something different to his usual shows in New Zealand this time with banter, humour, insight and storytelling that provided a night to remember for those who attended last night’s gig.
Galatos was set up appropriately with tables and chairs, candles and lanterns that represented an underground lounge you might find in any backstreet alley around the world. The stage was dimly lit, with a screen above to capture the feel not only of the night, but also to support and contribute to the many stories of Johnson’s catalogue. And what a catalogue he has. With more than 300 songs to choose from, Johnson picked, tickled, and trumpeted his way through a selection of songs that are now part of our Kiwiana music heritage.
Johnson was joined by Ben King (Goldenhorse) who truly complimented the stripped back songs and added harmonies that really brought to life some old favourites, as well as a few new additions during the course of the evening.
The pair kicked off with Suddenly Cold off the 1996 album Vine Street. An elegant song, which immediately had the crowd swaying along with the melodic signature that Johnson has carried around with him since getting in to the music industry back in 1990. In his own words, he plays what he likes and his style hasn’t changed much over the years. And while during the night there were pangs of regret, opportunities lost, and not making the big bucks, I got the feeling he’s still pretty happy with his lot.
After a few welcomes and introductions, Now The Sun Is Out followed and immediately flooded the room with the warmth you feel when a wood fire heats up a cold room. Johnson reminisced the facts behind this song. He had just gone to America, been dropped by his label and was living in a crappy flat so he wrote this song to cheer himself up. Why not? Imagine if we all could do that, how much better we might feel about those periods of our life that sucked a little.
We were then taken back where it all began with Both Hands On The Rail. The days when he was known as the Greg Johnson Set with members of Car Crash Set, who themselves enjoyed a short time in the sun back in the late 80s, and well worth a revisit if you get a chance. Johnson picked up his trumpet for this one which again highlighted the range of his talents.
One of his most misunderstood songs followed... Isabelle was a surprise hit for the band at the time and many thought it was about a lost love or an old flame that broke his heart. It was in fact an anti-war song inspired by the devastation of the Croatian War of Independence. A beautiful song stripped back, it gave a more intimate insight on the story he was reflecting and a real crowd pleaser of the night.
It’s worth mentioning here the sound during the evening was excellent and a nod to Ricky Morris (who is himself recording his first album in 22 years) for the work he did to create a sound that really fitted the surroundings. One disappointing aspect was the doof doof beats from a Halloween party next door, which at times took a little bit of the effect away, but a minor niggle really.
A little ditty and dark humour was injected when Johnson talked about a series of Mountain Lion attacks on mountain bike riders in San Diego a few years back. It appeared no less than three bikers were killed and highlighted just how close nature was to the heart of the city, inspiring the upbeat track Mountain Lion. It’s a great story that has hints of Don McGlashan in the vocals and notably one of the fastest upbeat songs of the night.
There are some songs that no matter how many times you play them you never get sick of them. Save Yourself off the 2004 album Here Comes The Caviar is one of those tracks for me. The title was inspired by a little advice given to Johnson from someone who was annoyingly always right (you know the ones). The lyrics are just brilliant and the punters showed their love and appreciation of the song when it closed.
The 1997 album Chinese Whispers yielded the Silver Scroll award winner Liberty and came about when Johnson thought it was time he learned to play the guitar. Again stripped back, the song lost none of its momentum and Johnson’s voice shines through with many of the now well-oiled crowd out the back singing along with the chorus.
Johnson's incredible talent struck me... while seemingly comfortable in his own skin, there were still signs of his conscious weaknesses as well. I loved his humour and interactions with the crowd. His cheeky smile and relaxed, happy chat all night long made many of the crowd smile from start to finish, making it so much more than just another gig. Then the music did its thing, as music always does.
Attending a night like this also highlighted how understanding what was behind a song brought it to life in ways you could never appreciate from the lyrics alone. From Hibiscus Song, about a missing night street worker, to Mountains, which came about after talking to a Christchurch cab driver about the Southern Alps, each insight helped to understand how Johnson connected to his environment and often one we take for granted everyday.
The last couple of songs Bulldozer, with a slightly reggae beat, and a nod to all of his old band members and being on the road, and Looking Out For Monday finished off the set and then it was all over the bar for the encore.
If I Swagger was a great song to finish with and closed the lizard lounge for another year. Going by the crowd and the smiles around the tables, it would be fair to say the punters knew they had been part of something quite special.
So here’s hoping the stories keep coming and Johnson brings a larger band or reunites with some of his old band mates, and who knows we might just be lucky enough to celebrate 30 years of Sunny Days with this iconic artist in 2020. I would buy my ticket for that right now.