Sunday, October 26, 2014

Johnny Hickman - Live In The Living Room - Granite Bay, California

Johnny Hickman came, and boy did he conquer.

Honestly, I can't remember the last time it was quite like this. Not a single cell phone video. No cell phone photos. Everyone in the room singing along with many of the songs. Nothing but a room full of friends enjoying a night of great live music. This was the good old days.

House concerts are somewhat the rage, and while I've seen a few excellent examples (Gladgirl Shelly's house shows in Dayton, Ohio come to mind), Johnny Hickman's show in Granite Bay, California took the prize. The only solo show I can even compare it to from personal experience was seeing Dave Edmunds one spectacular evening down in Austin, Texas about a dozen years ago, and I have to say even that now resides in second place.

I'm not a fan of solo troubadour shows, I will be the first to admit. It's a hell of a thing to think that with just your guitar, your voice, and your songs you can hold an audience's attention rapt for over two hours, it's asking a tremendous amount of the performer, and few are honestly up to the task. It might be vocal limitations that cause it to fall short, or maybe just an absence of a significant catalogue of guitar licks. Quite often, it simply comes down to just not enough compelling compositions to hold the attention. You almost can't blame the artist, it's a hell of a thing to even attempt.

I'm here to tell you that Johnny Hickman blew the folks away, and no one more than I.

Most will be familiar with Hickman from his just over twenty year ride as one of the founding fathers of Cracker, the alt-rock institution that rode the crest of the movement in the nineties, conquering the world with such hits as Teen Angst, Low, Euro-Trash Girl, and Get Off This, but also a band that has had staying power and continues to be a force to be reckoned with today. Expect soon their latest album, a double that's due to arrive on December 9th, entitled Berkeley To Bakersfield, a record that reunites the band with one of its original lineups, and which revisits their recorded history both stylistically and thematically. He's supplied the band with ample and tasty guitar licks, a few cool songs per release, and a friendly face to balance things out with the brilliant but sometimes sardonic seriousness of his partner in crime, David Lowery. They're kind of the Paul and John of alt-rock.

When he's not applying his tasty guitar to Cracker records, he's usually busy making his own - he released several solo outings. His first, Palmhenge, came out in 2005, followed by 2012's excellent Tilting (Tilting Review) - in addition, he regularly finds time for his long running side project with Jim Dalton of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, The Hickman-Dalton Gang, and several other part time endeavors. A life of music.

When I received the invitation to the show, I knew I'd go, and I figured it would be a pretty good time. Having seen Cracker more than a few times, and having had the opportunity to interact with Johnny on several occasions, it was a given that a night with one of the genuine goodwill ambassadors of rock 'n' roll would be a buzz, and all I can say in hindsight is that is a huge understatement.

Jim Rogers, our host for the evening has been a pal of Hickman's for decades, going back to when he did sound for The Dangers, one of Johnny's pre-Cracker bands. He avidly brought me up to speed on the evening, explaining that he was running about an hour behind as he greeted guests, made dinner for sixty, and set up the stage. In actuality he was doing just fine, great in fact - he told me that the night before he had picked Hickman up at the airport, and they had ended up listening to old tapes and reminiscing until way too late into the night. Still, he ran the room like a master.

It's always great when an audience is comprised of like-minded folks who show up for the right reasons, and if you know anything about Cracker and Hickman's fans, you'll know they are a legendarily loyal and music loving bunch. You meet people, shake hands, share a drink or two, and before you know it, you're one of the crowd. Finally, showtime drew near, and Johnny descended the stairwell to a throng of loving friends and fans. We spoke briefly and he waxed enthusiastic about his day job band's new record, and laughingly complained that because there were a few decent guitarists in the audience he was going to have to play especially well. We caught up on family and things, and then the troubadour set off for the stage.

As I stated at the top, this was the good old days. The audience was wonderfully in tune with the evening and very aware - you could feel the love and good vibes a mile away, and from the moment Hickman took the stage, he held the audience in his hands.

Now, I must admit that even though I've seen Johnny perform with Cracker, throughly enjoyed his solo records, and so forth, I was totally unprepared for what turned out to be as fine a performance as I've seen in a solo setting. I knew he was a great guitarist, but I was not prepared for how facile he was in this setting - singing and playing at the same time is much tougher than just doing one or the other, and more often than not when you see a guitar player cracking out a solo gig, both tasks tend to suffer to some extent, but if I'm not mistaken, I saw Hickman wielding an even meaner axe than he does when he's supplying his always tasteful accompaniment in Cracker, and he sang with surprising power, intonation, and command. Maybe it's on account of the freedom to just let things set sail, but I'm here to tell you that this was one superior performance. He performed two sets of over a dozen songs each, and even managed to play the consummate host, hanging out and chatting up an obviously familiar crowd between sets, and at the bookends of each.

He mixed up his solo repertoire with a few tasty Cracker crumbs, and even if you weren't familiar with the setlist, you would not have any trouble keeping your attention exactly where it belonged. Some of the highlights were Papa Johnny's Arms, Lonesome Johnny Blues, San Bernardino Boy, Mr. Wrong, Man In Me, and what I'm fond of calling 'one of the best rain songs ever written', his Cracker classic, Another Song About The Rain. Even without the epic length guitar solo from Hickman and his trusty Lucky Number Seven Gibson Les Paul, this song still drew goosebumps to my forearms - a writer's ability to sing and play his truth is one of the great acts in this universe. At the end of the day it came down to me perhaps failing to previously identify just how articulate and literate a writer we were witnessing. As I watched and listened, I realized that in addition to his rather obvious musical gifts, Hickman is a very gifted storyteller and lyricist. Like I said, he blew the room away.

There was about a crowd of sixty people in Granite Bay for this show, and I'm guessing that if you asked, they'd say it was the best twenty-five bucks they ever spent, and I'd agree. It's an amazing thing to see someone who has given so much of their life to the pursuit of music, and to do it so stunningly well. I've seen Beatles, I've seen Stones, and I will say now that I've seen Johnny Hickman, and he stands proudly next to any talent of our generation. If you have a chance to ever see the man in a solo setting, you will definitely want to take advantage of the opportunity. This was the real deal, in a setting that could not have been more perfect.

Thanks to Johnny Hickman, Jim Rogers, and all the wonderful folks I met on this evening. No cameras, no videos, just a couple hours of great people enjoying a great performer - this was the good old days....


Anonymous said...

Outstanding show and a great write up...hope we can do it again soon!

Jim Rogers said...

Tony, that was a moving and eloquent review. That evening will always be among my favorite memories. Even if I did overcook the second ham! Sincerely, Jim Rogers

Anonymous said...

The show in San Ramon was brilliant! Loved Johnny's playing! Another Song About the Rain was so beautifully done, I almost started crying... .new bride Lisa here, married a Crumb on Saturday!

Walter Sweet said...

Tony, you really captured what a special evening that was... appreciate, too, the context of other house concerts and details/nuances about Johnny and his work... he's definitely a world-class talent... and i'll have to concur with New Bride Lisa -- my adult son called me the next day shout/singing, "ANOTHER SONG ABOUT THE RAINNNN"...

Steve Hymer said...

Johnny is the Real Deal. What a show that must have been. Hope he comes my way!!!

Anonymous said...

Lisa here, the one that married a Crumb. We are both looking forward to this series again! We are so fortunate to be included and count ourselves among the very Lucky indeed, who can see him in such an intimate venue. We were at the San Ramon show in 2014 and caught all three last year; this year should prove to be sweet!