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Hitting Some of the Right Notes PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 01 October 2002 18:00
There comes a time when a band knows that it’s ready for big things. You can tell from the packaging of and promotional materials for its newest CD that Shane Johnson’s Blue Train is ready to break out. They’re professional and polished, and they look damn good.

The album’s title, then, is a bit curious: Anonymous Johnson. The band photo in the booklet features black rectangles over the members’ eyes, disguising their identities.

It’s unfortunate that the first half of Anonymous Johnson generally lives up to the record’s name, rather than the promise of the packaging. As blues rock goes, it’s competent but generic, and too flat. The record starts so disappointingly because Johnson and company are so talented and show so much promise.

The good news is that the band finds its wings on the record’s second half, with five powerful tracks including an album-closing stylistic departure that reveals an outfit whose experiments outside of the blues could prove very interesting.

The Blue Train is a much different monster than on its last recording, Big Legged Women from late 2000. Gone are bassist and singer John Resch and harmonica player “Detroit” Larry Davison, who left the band to allow the group to tour more.

Scott Willman still pounds the skins for the band, but Spencer Zimmerman has taken over bass (and some singing) duties while J.C. Thompson lends his smooth, soulful voice. (He sure does look mean, though.)

Anonymous Johnson’s liner notes suggest that the past two years have been trying for the Blue Train: “This album is a raw representation of our experiences and the light at the end of the tunnel,” the band writes. “We have come to find out that even though the tunnel gets longer, the light at the end still grows stronger.”

The new outfit shows some of its strength on the third track, the slow, hard blues of “My Life Is My Own” – with both Thompson and Johnson letting loose. “I’m Gone” follows and might be a Chuck Berry tune. There’s nothing wrong with these songs, but nothing distinguishes them: The licks, the singing, and the songwriting are all pedestrian.

Anonymous Johnson, though, comes to life in its second half, particularly the well-grooved soul number “Crazy Loneliness,” the high-energy romp “Babyface Daddy,” and the gentle instrumental “Daisy Mae.”

“Babbyface Daddy” sounds like a simple come-on rocker with a heavy bass bottom, but it also seems to address the Blue Train’s youth. The chorus could be read as a rebuke to those who question how four kids could possibly get the blues: “Just because I look so young don’t mean I ain’t been schooled / Just because I got a babyface baby don’t mean I ain’t your daddy.” (The band didn’t open itself up to credibility questions so much with the older Resch and Davison, but Johnson’s going to get carded for a long time to come.)

“Daisy Mae” has a quiet urgency and showcases Johnson’s playing abilities like nothing before. The tune uses the guitar for its voice, and Johnson’s expressive skills truly impress – subtle and supple. Then there’s “Double Door,” a lovely lament that Thompson sings beautifully.

The album finishes with the dirge-like “Glory,” with its fuzzed-out, dissonant guitar, subdued thumping bass drum, and vocals that start at a hoarse whisper and end with a clear but quiet defiance. The closer stands out so starkly because, unlike the rest of the record, it doesn’t fit in with an established formula; it’s something genuinely fresh.

Shane Johnson’s Blue Train will hold a CD-release party on Saturday, October 12, at the RIBCO. The show starts at 10 p.m.

Anonymous Johnson is available at Quad Cities-area Co-Op stores, at shows, and from the band’s Web site: (http://www.sjbluetrain.com).
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