CEDAR RAPIDS — Songwriter, singer and guitarist Michael Johnson appeared at CSPS on Friday night (2/1/13), with an opening from local singer/guitarist Carol Montag. It was an enjoyable evening, but not a great one.
CSPS is an warm, intimate space. With tables and chairs in front, and auditorium style seating in back, it has the feel of a small nightclub. It seats about 200. The proximity to the artists is very good, indeed, and the sound and lighting are professional. John Herbert is an wry master of ceremonies and adds a welcome personal touch to the evening.
Montag has a pure, clear voice and remarkable authenticity. Her rendition of “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” sung a capella, was quite moving. I also enjoyed her “Marigolds in Winter,” which reflects upon lost youth, lost love: “I’ll never forget you. You’ll be my marigold in winter all my life.” Where would songwriters be without regret?
Montag’s humorous songs also work well. “I Don’t Do Jello” and “Ode To Velveeta” (sung to the tune of “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”) were smile-inducing.
Headliner Johnson’s funny songs were also successful. Particularly “It’s A Gift!,” the ultimate song of self-deprecation. Johnson has been dealing with his fans for decades, and has obviously found a healthy way to deal with adoration: He is very talented and very good looking. “It’s a gift … I don’t like to talk about it.” The song describes a date who tells the performer, “You’re so far from sexy, You aren’t even on the map.” And she pours her drink in his lap.
After announcing that he would now sing a depressing song, I enjoyed his parody of “Blue Bayou,” which centers on the singer’s toupee, “brown with a touch of grey, that blew by you.” Johnson tells the audience that he wrote the song with Roy Orbison after he died. And mentions the inscription on the tombstone of a blues singer: “I didn’t wake up this morning.”
I would liked to have heard some of his past hits, like “Bluer Than Blue ” and “It’s Almost Like Being In Love.” And perhaps fewer songs like “The Fate of Fireflies” and “I Take My Love Seriously,” which wallow too much in easy sentiment.
Johnson’s strongest suit is his guitar playing. The bass riff in “I Take My Love Seriously” is terrific. At times flamenco, at times jazzy, he always spearks brilliantly through his guitar.
His final song, with its chorus: “Don’t let us get sick/Don’t let us get old/Don’t let us stupid. … Let us be together tonight” works well, affirming that he is a sensitive man, searching for what makes us human.
The performance received a swift standing ovation.