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Jamey Johnson w/ Josh Thompson @ The Riverside Theater

Dec. 2, 2010

Dec. 7, 2010
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Without any fanfare or buildup from theFM personality MCing the concert,Jamey Johnson bounded onto the stage at the Riverside Theater Thursday night. Twenty-five songs later, he made his exit as a hero,looking at an audience from which he had drawn the kind ofemotional breadthfew in today’s commercial country music can summon from their listeners.

Doubtless hewas already a hero to many in the audience for his spotheadliningWMIL's Toys for Tots benefit concert. His latest album, the double-CD/triple-LP TheGuitar Song,kicks the seat of Nashville'sstar-making machinery by delivering musicredolent of the ’70s outlaw movement, but with fresh autobiographical twists and a redoubling on traditional genre influences. And, oh yes, he also kicks Nash Vegas where it sits bybringing a vividreality about lifethe likes of which that star-making machine often knows little.

Nohat-act, boot-scoot cutiehas the gumption to tackle songs about afarmer growing marijuana to make ends meet ("Can't Cash My Checks") andimplied murder balladry ("Poor Man Blues")whilelikewise delivering father maxims ("By the Seat of Your Pants") and generalexercises in melancholy ("Even the Skies Are Blue")—all without seeming cliché.Johnsonapplies a nearly world-weary authenticity withhisdeep, bassy baritone emanating from atop the most glorious beard in country sinceThe Oak Ridge Boys’ William Lee Golden. Without a word of between-tune small talk, he connected withhis raptaudience to the point of encouraging them to sing not only a chorus but also the verseofthe biggest of his hits so far,the poignanttaleof a grandfather'smemories in photographicform, "In Color."

About as much of Johnson'sset was comprised of remakes asoriginals. Amongthose he recorded for Guitar,including Mel Tillis' "Mental Revenge" and theKris Kristoffersonstandard "For the Good Times," he and his six-piece band employed covers by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, ZZ Top and Bob Seger—the lot of which he invested with the kind of conviction that connotes both respect for the source materialand the desire to make the songs his own. It was something of a disappointment, though, that hesaw fit togivean impassioned spin on Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light,"but didn't broach any of his own worthwhile gospel numbers.

Cedarburg's maker of recent country-radiobiggies, Josh Thompson, may not command the force of personality to get away with just a few words of thanks at the end of his stagetime, per Johnson, buthe knows how to get the party started. Being local may help, but sodoes material thattakes onmany of the format's bases of subject matter. You've heard Miranda Lambert sing about small-town celebrityandHank Williams Jr. address rural pride with more deftness, but Thompson hascharm and youthto spare. And he can always gethis crowds to raise their cups of barley pop with his indelibly rousing "Beer on the Table."

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