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Freedy Johnston At Joe's Pub, Wednesday, August 14th, 2013, Reviewed

Freedy Hat Power













When Freedy is singing one of his more intense and mordant songs, a devastated version of “This Perfect World” Wednesday evening at Joe’s Pub comes to mind, his dark blue eyes become liquidy and his body tightens up. That story song is sad enough, a man who had walked out on his daughter is dying and returns to say goodbye: “They say that soon I will be gone away but I still deserve to say goodbye, no matter what I’ve done.” It is a heartbreaker and Freedy is effected by the story even after all this time,  but as he would say of a new song later in the evening, “You have to write about something”.

In the world of singer songwriters, Freedy is in his own league entirely. On a song off his second album,  Can You Fly, Freedy wrote “I sold the farm to pay the band” and ’tis true, the Kansas boy sold his heritage to make music and the reason why is simple enough if you listen to him: the man can write songs and , as Plato noted, people must do what  they are best at (in “The Republic”, pop pickers).  The 90 minute set is filled with great great songs, he goes as far back as “Tucumcari” and “No Violins” off his debut album  The Trouble Tree, all the way to”The First To Leave The World Is The First To See The World” from  his crowd funded yet to be released (I don’t think it is even recorded) The Neon Repairman.

At first Freedy seemed so off hand he was being unprofessional, certainly an out of tune “Not Responsible” to open the evening was distressing,  but he regrouped at the piano almost immediately with a “Caught As You Move Away”, another enormously sad song, this time written for his mother. “The saddest song I’ve ever written and I can’t play it” Freedy claims but he is being self-deprecating and it is really good and despite some out of tune moments later on, the set gels almost immediately.The set is like when you go for a walk to the post office with your girlfriend on a sweet Spring day and you meander aimlessly along, talking, laughing, feeling close and then, though you hadn’t really been concentrating, you find yourself at your destination. That was what Freedy did -he took us where he wanted us to go.

He kicks things into high gear with another story, this time about a millinery company who are manufacturing “The Freedy” after Johnstons own hat, “It’s true, I went into a store and asked to see one… I could retire happily now but I can’t afford to.” In a lesser performers hands, the constant talking (Freedy runs out of time and doesn’t play his biggest hit “Bad Reputation”) would kill momentum, but Freedy manages his set with a loose tightness. It feels off hand, improvised, but he maintains complete control of the proceedings. It is like a musical free association but the asssociated is songs and more songs. Heplays some songs off the first album because he just played them at a Maxwell’s farewell concert (with a full band) which leads to “Remember Me” (“Left my money in a Maxwells coffee can down by the cemetery beach…” cool, eh?), which Crenshaw played guitar  on “One take and done, didn’t say a word”. Which leads Freedy to cover “Someday Someway”, a really smart cover which completely honors the lick. When Freedy first came out, “Bad Reputation” dates from 1994, he was viewed as second generation Crenshaw and maybe so, to a lesser or greater degree they both come from the world of power pop but  though Freedy doesn’t play country there is a seeping in of country story telling. Think of a Lee Hazelwood type vibe. If you add to that the ability to a tell a story with a minimum of fuss (catechism of the day: “It isn’t much of a story but that’s why we have melody”), perhaps, to remix a Robert Christgau line,  he should change his name to Hank and move to Nashville.

Freedy is a really excellent lyricist and, despite his claims, storyteller . On a new song he tells the story of the Soviet Union’s first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. It was 1968 and Yuri wasn’t allowed to tell his Mom, who was working at a factory (EVERBODY worked) about his mission. His Mom heard about it on the radio and Yuri, circling the earth in a capsule, imagined calling his Mom when he got down. It is a really great idea for a song and Johnston gets it all. It is a storyteller not a lyricists gift he brings, he has the benighted habit of choosing the right professions for the fate he has decreed upon his characters.

And so it goes throughout the night, it is a like a musical connect the dots with just Freedy in the spotlight, so well at ease, so funny and just certain as to what he is doing, so willing to kid his way through it and Freedy’s songs are so damn… well he asks how Marshall can write such cheerful songs. Somebody shouts out, “because Marshall is happy…” and Freedy nods his head knowingly. Sad songs are what Freedy does. Just about all of them. He plays his tenor guitar and claims he can only write sad songs on it before performing “Western Sky”. Another sad story in a long line of em.

I shouted out for “The Farthest Light” and he performs it as well. “The Farthest Light” is off 1999’s Blue Days, Black Nights, an album that may stand as his signature achievement. It is better than his biggest album, This Perfect World, and “The Farthest Light” works on so many level it remains as great a song as any one has ever written. Freedy works out a story and a metaphor with a devastating calm, not power pop, it sounds like a variant on country with a twang in the background. An astronomer is losing his wife and he compares the night skies to her “so familiar and so far away”. And the chorus seems to float in a world of pain though you need to read so deep into them: “The farthest lights take us back in time, wonder how they’ve changed?”

This is gifted songwriting. Freedy mentions that a new song “The Neon Repairman” is a tracing of “Wichita Lineman”, mentions meeting Jimmy Webb in Jimmy’s dressing room after a gig. But Freedy can be mentioned in the same sentence as Jimmy and Marshall; he writes on that sort of level. This is clear in a set that while it had an occasionally iffy performance, did not have a bad song. I remember going to see Freedy opening for Sheryl Crow at the Beacon once and, not a Crow fan ever since she sucked at Roseland opening for Dylan, I left after his set. One day, I thought, Freedy will be the headliner. His career didn’t pan out like that but his songs sure did.

Grade: A-

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