Jamey Johnson. Joe’s Bar. 04.10.15

JJ

Jamey Johnson. Joe’s Bar. 04.10.15

“My Home’s in Alabama” was being piped over the PA at Joe’s Bar on Weed Street. I was a thousand miles from home and at least half that far from Alabama. The Chicago crowd ranged from the slightly buzzed to the fall-down drunk. They were rowdy as hell as they sang about being “southern born and southern bred.” Chris Hennessee had already warmed things up with some outlaw style and a big personality, but even he’d admit that he received more than just a little help from the female bartenders pushing $5 Bud Lights and ice-cold Fireball shots. The music said ‘country’, but the venue said ‘club’ – complete with a VIP section and bathroom attendants. Joe’s Bar was not my scene. As much as I appreciated the old Alabama and Hank Williams, Jr. and George Strait in between sets, Jamey Johnson could not take the stage soon enough.

You might expect the guy who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to be right at home in a place like Joe’s. You might expect him to be a complete douchebag. It would seem very likely if you’ve ever heard that song. But Jamey Johnson is the complete opposite. He is outlaw country. The man took the stage in a pair of jeans and a black hoodie. He wore his beard and his hair long. No flash, no attitude, no ego — just a man with an old beat-up guitar, some songs and a respect for the greats that came before him. His six-piece band was just as unassuming as the man himself. Like ghosts of country-western past, they erased the intervening years between ‘then’ and ‘now’ one chord and one lyric at a time. Jamey Johnson has proved he can write a pop country song with the worst of them, but what he chooses to write for other people, and what he chooses to perform himself, are very different things.

The set started with “High Cost Of Living”. It was a bold opener considering it’s one of his most well-known songs. It’s also one of the most honest songs ever written about the monotony of everyday life…and how trying to escape that everyday life can lead you down a road that makes monotony look pretty damn good in comparison. The title track from that same album came shortly after, with a line that many in the crowd were able to relate to the next morning…

What the hell did I do last night?
That’s the story of my life,
Like tryin’ to remember words
To a song nobody wrote

It didn’t take long for Johnson to take things back though…back much further than his first album. I’ve seen him perform quite a few times over the years and he’s always been prone to cover songs. It’s almost as if he still thinks he’s an unknown — just another guy singing songs in bars for drunks. Or maybe he just gets bored singing his old songs. Whatever the reason may be, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” was the first choice of the evening. It was a great choice, but luckily for those of us who came to see Jamey Johnson perform Jamey Johnson songs, a long run of originals followed. “Cover Your Eyes” and (one of the best country songs ever) “In Color” were highlights from the middle of the set.

There is no way to review a Jamey Johnson show without using the word stoic. I also can’t help comparing him to a country-western Buddha. He stands at that microphone and tells stories. That’s what he does. He doesn’t address the crowd directly very often, and on the rare occasion when he does, it’s a tip of his Red Solo cup or a gruff “thank y’all”. He did try to say something after “Between Jennings and Jones” and before “Can’t Cash My Checks”, but the crowd was so loud that I couldn’t decipher it. Unfortunately, the crowd really started to suck around that time. As Johnson and the band worked their way through deep cuts and classics from Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, and even rockers like Georgia Satellites and Bob Seger, people became more and more unruly. Girls gossiping at the top of their lungs…bros yelling at bros in the front row…cell phones swaying in the air, taking videos no one would ever be able to watch. But as things got messier, Johnson got more intense. It was almost as if he thrived on it. I’ve never seen him as determined as he was taking on “Turn the Page”, even though he had to fight for airtime against the incoherent ramblings of the drunk.

The show went on for two and a half hours. Johnson and his band left it all on that stage. I wish I could call out the musicians by name, but the older gentleman on the pedal steel and the multi-instrumentalist who picked up the fiddle were insane. The whole lot of them were true professionals and so much fun to watch. The night ended with Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light”. It was another perfect selection, and although the crowd had thinned out a bit, those that were still in attendance couldn’t help but sing along.

Jamey Johnson is one of the best country singer-songwriters working today. The fact that he has not only graced the stage at events like the CMA’s, but has also won awards, gives me hope for mainstream country music. Some might hold it against him for contributing to the ‘crap’ by writing songs that he wouldn’t sing himself, but I can’t help but respect him. He could have rode the wave of fame that was about to pick him up a few years back, but he stayed true to himself instead. He released a double album in a singles-based industry, and then he followed it up with a tribute album and Christmas EP. He releases singles on youtube whenever he feels like it. Then he goes out and plays cover songs in country bars. The man plays by his own rules. If those rules allow him to write a generic song for a generic singer to sing, so be it. Isn’t playing by your own rules the very definition of being an outlaw? I believe so. That is why I believe that Jamey Johnson isn’t just following in the footsteps of outlaw country’s greats, he is one himself. And he proved me right at Joe’s Bar on Friday night.

Setlist:
High Cost of Living
Place Out on the Ocean
That Lonesome Song
I Fall to Pieces
Mowin’ Down the Roses
Cover Your Eyes
Lonely at the Top
Set ’em Up Joe
Playin’ the Part
Between Jennings and Jones
Can’t Cash My Checks
In Color
Heaven Was a Drink of Wine
Dixieland Delight
Lay Down Beside Me
Permanently Lonely
I’ve Got Your Picture
Keep Your Hands to Yourself
Georgia On My Mind
By the Seat of Your Pants
Give It Away
The Chair
He Stopped Loving Her Today
Still Doin’ Time
Turn the Page
Macon
Freedom to Stay
Night Life
Stars in Alabama
I Saw the Light

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