Friday, March 27, 2009

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Jonny Lang At The Fillmore

Jonny Lang and Band: From left to right, Charles Jones (Keys),
Reeve Carney(guitar), Jonny Lang, Barry Alexander (Drums) and Jim Anton (Bass) (photo by Ron Giesecke)

Having never seen Jonny Lang in what musicologists will ultimately deem his antediluvian period, I was unable to pull myself away from the prospect of catching him early in the infancy of his “Turn Around” world tour. And fortunately for me, I was also able to do it at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore venue—the irony of it being the conduit for a once-raging, counterfeit Azusa-like anti-war revival was not lost on me in the very least.

One not need to have seen Jonny Lang in concert before to understand that he is a changed man. Standing amongst a sardine-packed sea of humanity, maybe ten feet from the center stage monitor, I had the peripheral conversations—some given their comfortable volume by venue-sponsored alcohol, some by their sheer excitement of the event about to take place—set the atmosphere for anyone that may have been unaware up until then.

“Jonny’s gone Christian this time,” said the guy on my right. “At least that’s what I’m getting from this album.”

“I hope it’s not too Christian,” said another woman in front of me. “I mean I’m wondering if he’ll change his lyrics or anything like that.” She went on to tally her devotion to the career of one of the youngest guitar-wielding dynamos to grace the blues scene in years, along with a brief elucidation of her plans to “marry that guy.” When I told her he was already married, she just kind of looked at me, like I had violated an unwritten rule of some informational Geneva Convention.

“I doubt he’ll be changing the lyrics to his wedding vows, “ I said with a smile. She just smiled back with a look that underscored her appreciation for Jonny’s already-established lyrical sincerity.

“Probably right.” She said.

I had already heard some pretty rock-solid-but-unsubstantiated evidence to Jonny’s no-holds-barred devotion to God. Being the intrepid, and unusually exuberant sort of Apostolic music fan, I decided that, instead of making endless phone calls to my Pentecostal six-degree-ers, that I’d just show up to the concert and ask the man myself. Or at any rate, wave the Team Jesus banner high enough to engender a response.

Half the fun of being at the Fillmore is purely it being the abject historical behemoth that it is. My friend Rob, and I immediately checked out the antiquated ballroom with the high ceilings and chandeliers from who-knows-when. The posters literally shellac the walls with nostalgia—you name the group—they’ve played there and been seemingly forever immortalized on those walls—somewhere.

But while the vintage Pink Floyd posters were interesting, I wasn’t there to see them. I was there to see Jonny Lang.

Lang’s opening act is partially organic, as his seemingly passive guitarist assumes the lead performance role as Reeve Carney’s Revolving Band. Reeve’s self-listed pantheon of influences is so large, that he may as well have put “Just about everybody” and saved his I.T. guy the residual, carpal-tunnel outpatient visits. Lang’s ever-energetic keyboardist Charles Jones, also stands in on the Hammond.

So how does one describe this band’s opening salvos? Well, one minute you’re hearing blues, the next gospel, the next some jazzy, eclectic vamp. Trying to nail down exactly what it is they do is like trying to pigeonhole . . . well, a pigeon who sometimes commutes by rail for travel. 100% of the musical message was positive, with two highlights. One is Reeve’s own, solo treatment of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody’s second movement. After hearing the spiritually-charged nature of all original material up to that point, the refrain “goodbye everybody, I've got to go . . .” fittingly serves as not only a tribute to a dormant musical giant, but secondarily becomes a sort of contemplative prayer of repentance.

The other one was what I remember as being their penultimate number—and the only one of which I can recall a title: the as-yet unrecorded “Testify.” I’m telling you right now, this song is the one everybody who hit the souvenir booth was looking for. If they don’t crank this blazing, Mississippi-Delta electric anthem out on CD soon, then I’m coming looking for them.

It took all of one opening set for them to grow on me. They had me at “Testify.”

So out comes Jonny Lang. No vainglorious entrance. No diva promenade. He just walks on stage, puts on his telecaster, adjusts the microphone, and starts cranking out “Long Time Coming.” Right off the bat, I knew this song was auguring ill for anyone hoping for Jonny to start singing about Cherry Red Wine. I could hear the collective wheels turning: Something about this guy is different. His face is shining, and it aint coming from the house lights.

From there, he let fly with “Turn Around.” There was no stopping him. The Fillmore was alight, and God’s redeeming power was not only obviatingly clear, but also Jonny’s sincere love for his fans, and his thankfulness that they were there to be a part of his chance to share it. And they did not hold back in reciprocating their love for him. They know he’s not an act—even if Jonny Lang occupies a stage for his career.

Songs that had heretofore been galvanized with worldly, pessimistic overtones were gently worked into songs with resolution; “A Quitter Never Wins” remains almost entirely intact, as the underlying message has always been essentially true. Other songs, such as “Wander This World,” are beautifully altered thus:


Sometimes it's like I don't even exist
Even God has lost track of my soul
Why else would he leave me out here like this
To wander this world all alone


Sometimes it's like I don't even exist
Seemed like God had lost track of my soul
But I know he Loves me, and doesn’t want me
To wander this world all alone

“Breakin’ Me” gets a whole new verse, that elevates the song from a need for open human companionship to God’s burning desire for ours. One thing is for certain. The man is praying on stage. It becomes very clear from two bars in, that Jonny’s pyrotechnic and contortioned guitar skills are being given back to the One who gave them to him in the first place. Anyone doubting this that night up to that point, had to come to grips with Jonny’s prayer-ridden, instrumental treatment of “I Love You Lord” on the acoustic guitar. For a brief minute, I could hear someone beside myself singing:

I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice
To worship you, Oh my soul rejoice!
Take joy, my King, in what you hear
May it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.

This was aimed at one audience member alone. Jesus. Even if one did not know the song, the utter worship with which it was aimed sky-ward washed away all second-guessing. This partially-inebriated audience sat in stunned silence—as the Holy Ghost moved among them.

So time came for my own, Fillmore style, “Can I get a witness” piece of litmus paper stuck in my pocket. Prior to leaving home, I jammed the Printmaster disc into the drive, and hammered out a sign that said “Acts 2:38” on it, mashed the print button, and headed to Rob’s house in Sacramento. I had no idea what a blessing that little piece of poster board was going to be for me—not to mention Jonny.

About five or six songs in, I held up the sign. I expected maybe a smile (no one else had a sign, so why not?). What happened was almost transformational in and of itself. Jonny’s face went from glancing the set list to glancing my sign—his face exploding with a smile only paralleled by the times when he thanked his audience for coming. He pointed right to me and said “That is what I’m talking about right there!”

This of course, put me in my own little spotlight of curiosity. Most of the crowd couldn’t see my little sign, and I knew the ambient noise would prevent me from getting the message very far, so I just waited a second on God.

A woman to my left wanted to know what it was I had written on my sign that made Jonny so exultant. “He really reacted to whatever you had on there,” she said.

I opened the paper back up, and started to give her the verse to write down, when I decided that I’d jut give it to her outright.

“Do you have a bible at home?” I asked.

“I do, “ she said.

“Then take this, not only as a sort of odd souvenir, but understand that this verse means more to that man up there than any lyric he may have written, “I said. “Believe me, no one reacts that way to this verse without having personally lived it.”

I quoted the verse to her over the loud refrains of “Don’t Stop For Anything” She thanked me, and slipped out my area. I’ll always wonder what happened to her.

Jonny went on to cover a large portion of the new album, and then closed with an uncomfortable treatment of his biggest hit, “Lie to Me.”

No there wasn’t any way to re-do the song in its current form, just like anyone who comes to God cannot immediately re-galvanize every aspect of their workload overnight. But I will go out on this limb: he will not be singing this song for long (at least in its current form). His face told everyone, even if his mouth never uttered it.

I’d like to thank Reeve Carney for the extended conversations about God, life and music by the tour bus, and to reassure me that Jonny would be “heading right over here” after a brief time. It was he that united a couple of musical and spiritual brothers long after the Fillmore staff had kicked us out onto Geary Street.

Finally, out came a very tired Jonny Lang, and he made a bee-line for where we were standing. I hugged him as a brother, and encouraged him in his walk. I also told him the story about how I wound up coming to see him on short notice, and how an entire youth group in the Sacramento Rock Church were listening to his new CD. His face lit up again.

“That is awesome!” he said. he then added, “You have no idea how it brightened my night to look out and see that sign.”

“What’s a brother for?” I said. Inside I knew this had been the best concert I had ever attended.

Jonny stood for a couple of pictures, signed my CD, bidded us Godspeed, and got on the bus to head for the next night’s show: Fresno.

The bus immediately pulled away from the curb, which is a fitting analogy to Jonny’s testimony. He was leaving to stay.

God bless him. We’ll chat again soon, I’m sure.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Jonny Lang's Damascus Road

Anyone arguing this album doesn't fit within the realm of blues is just plainly missing the point of blues. Plenty of blues songs reflect transition, and plenty of blues records have some kind of spiritual underpinning to them, although most of them seem to land squarely in the camp that leaves God "over there," as it were.

Really, if one really wants to trace a logical growth arc, both musically and spiritually for Jonny Lang, than this album is the most logical one he could have done. And anyone feigning complete and utter surprise at his overt conversion should just knock it off right now, because the predications have been there from the start. Jonny Lang’s previous offerings had plenty of spiritual currency to them, and reflected not only a desire for more against the backdrop of human doubt (“Leaving to stay,”) internally, but a relationship predicated on the concept of a sovereign God (“The Goodbye Letter.”).

That said, I do not consider this a “blues” album directly, but that delineation began with Long Time Coming, not this album.

Let me say at the outset, that I love this album, especially from the standpoint of where Jonny has taken his ever-versatile vocal gifts. Lang manages to navigate between the grit and the whisper, and shows perhaps the greatest penchant for emotion since he started playing "Irish Angel" during his shows.

The album is definitely an autobiographical one—one that carries Lang’s personal journey. While not passive in any way lyrically, the album in no way indicts secular the listener into defensive mode, but rather conveys a sense of “would you perhaps try to see what I’m seeing?”

Highlights for me personally: “The Other Side of the Fence,” a very riffy song, even if one feels slightly cheated that Jonny doesn’t peel forth as much on his Telecaster. “Don’t Stop For Anything,” is a vamp, a bluesy/funky glottal fry that, besides putting the hair up on my arm, made me realize the Prodigal Son could get 21st century treatment without seeming pedestrian and cloying. And yes, his guitar shows up, too.

I’ll avoid dragging this out with snippets of the whole thing, but I will predict that those inclined to believe Jonny Lang has entered some Dylan-esque “phase” by tinkering with Christianity will not have their predictions borne out. “That Great Day,” is not only blatantly traditional in its gospel construction, but carries certain revelatory clues about baptism and consecration that transcend the “I need a good phrase that rhymes here” lines that were never broached when Pete Seeger sang “Mary Don’t You Weep.”

And maybe that will be perhaps the issue that re-defines his fan base. One cannot listen to any Jonny Lang song and come to the conclusion that conviction and belief are not present at every nuance—that is perhaps part of what made him who he is at as young an age that he happens to be.

And such is the case here. Not all of his fans will like Jonny’s neo-Apostolic emergence, but they will not need another album to arrive at this albums ultimate premise: “I’m Jonny Lang. I’ve been changed, and I mean it.”