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Judah Johnson

(19 May 2003: Fez — New York)


Timidity is the New Confidence


Everybody keeps talking about Detroit. Detroit—New Rock City. Car exhaust and downtown decay. Stooges resurrected. Blah blah blah. All of this is simply hot air from industry types searching for the Real Rock—all of it froths obsessively over bands which affect, sincerely or no, some kind of days-of-yore rock authenticity. Detroit has become holy because it’s an emblem of our country’s urban malaise, the other side of the coin to the American Dream. Rock music has always required a Mecca like this—Seattle was it once, and so was New York, and so and so and so. Today’s Detroit, as seen from the outside by folks who’ve never driven I-75, is the ideal locale—just down-and-out enough to resurrect the dispossessed fury of youth and their mighty guitar riffs and bass licks. Just being from Detroit has become a rock and roll victory.


So what for Judah Johnson? Plainly put, nothing about this Detroit four piece is triumphant. Not the crumpled appearance of the band members themselves—who tonight are embodying varying states of being unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed. Not the timid way they posture, at times like jittery actors concentrating too hard on maintaining their staging. Not the unassuming way they meander to their pulpit and gently begin their set before the handful of fans at Fez tonight, nor the resigned way in which they end it, with sheepish smiles and thanks. And most certainly, not the music. Their 2002 release Kisses and Interrogation (Flameshovel Records), is overwhelmed by upset and unrest—slow songs that toss and turn in their quietude, or stir with a faster, self-contained rage. Performed live, these songs become more voluminous but not necessarily more self-assured. In form and in content, Judah Johnson give off a sense of discomfort in their own skin, or unfamiliarity with their own talent. They’re a band with butterflies.


Still, somehow, this edginess seems befitting. Beginning tonight’s show is “Kisses and Interrogation”, a song which appears in two different formats on their album of the same title. (Talk about indecision.) It is a mid-tempo, steaming number, with the insistence and magnitude of emo minus the hardcore-inspired volatility. Instead it, like much of their material, is pop-treated—like a Duncan Sheik or Jeff Buckley who hasn’t ever gotten his way.


Lead singer/guitarist Daniel Johnson’s voice matches the body from which it emerges - like a cross country runner, both are long and rangey, both stride toward finish. When he sings, he keeps his eyes closed and he rocks back and forth on his heels, singing up to the microphone as if he’s begging something of it. Bassist Zach Roberts does a shoegazey stance as he plods along the lines. Steve Nistor, on keyboards, is nearly unseen at the stage’s far left, keeping his head down and rarely interacting with his bandmates. Oddly, it is drummer Charles Koltak who is the most animated, confident, and noticeable. His playing is brawny without being overbearing; the complex rhythmic layers beneath the melodic sheen which are the best clues to this band’s sophistication and depth.


They play an hour-long set, largely taken from Kisses and Interrogation, in which water-slow songs cascade into one another, built on mature chord progressions and reeling songmanship/songcraft. When Judah Johnson do pick up the pace, it is straightforward and decipherable. “The Great Humanitarian”, a jangly pop tune, is animated and clear; “Vegas Revisited” also pushes along, with what might be called determination if such a front could be harnessed by boys who so clearly bank on their emotionality.


What Judah Johnson have going for them is the power of sincerity. They are nothing if not themselves, bared souls and idiosyncrasies, lumps and all. Take heed: according to Judah Johnson, it’s ok to be from Detroit and not rock the disheveled chic; it’s ok not to play obnoxious, cocksure raw-rawk; it’s ok to sing a nice, sad song every once in a while. Though this may not have been the tightest rock show I have ever seen, it was by far among the most sincere.

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