Michael Johnson Photo

Michael Johnson — Varied Style

By Neal Vitale, Glove Correspondent
The Boston Globe
August 13, 1973

Michael Johnson. Not exactly an unusual or extraordinary name. But within the above of that appellation dwell perhaps dozens of exotic personae with diverse backgrounds and influences.

There is Michael Johnson, one of five children of an Alamosa, Colo. family, who began plahing guitar when he was about 13 and learned that he "really couldn't talk too well."

THere is Michael Johnson, music education student turned classical guitarist, who studied with Luis Bonfa at Andres Segovia's school in Barcelona, Spain.

There is Michael Johnson, one one-time Gene McCarthy supporter (turned apolitical) who looks like a young, blond, and shaggy Jack Lemmon and talks like Dick Cavett, who has played in dance bands of V.F.W. halls, with Randy Sparks (of the New Christy Minstrels and the Back Porch Majority), the Chad Mitchell Trio, and with the Jacques Brel Revue in New York and Los Angeles.

There is Michael Johnson, a 29-year-old soloist who has just released his first album ("There is a Breeze") on Atco Records, who opened on Thursday night as the warm-up act before Tom Rapp at the Passim Coffeeshop.

Which is the real Michael Johnson? He says, simply, "They all are."

Michael Johnson's music is no less varied, reflecting all the divergent elements in his pasts; in fact it is sometimes difficult to tell that the musician in "There is a Breeze" and the one at Passim are the same person. To an extent, this is intentional: Johnson thinks that "audiences dig the fact that you're different from your album; at least they like to know how much of the album is your particular talent, as opposed to somebody else's talent."

The obvious point of departure between recorded and live is in the difference between the possibilities of arranging and instrumentation in the studio and the limits of soloing unaccompanied. Yet it is in the live context that it becomes clear that Michael Johnson's forte is his guitar work. He plays an exceptional classical guitar, itself a redeeming factor in some of his less-than-distinguished material, though seldom in a classical style.

He says, "I didn't go (to Spain) to learn how to play classical guitar, I just learned how to play cleanly on the classical guitar."

The one classical guitar piece he has retained, Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Study in E Minor" is magical; on record, a tune he plays with fellow Minneapolis resident and top-notch guitarist Leo Kottke, "In Your Eyes," is equally successful. Other songs range from works by Dave Brubeck to Jackson Browne, from Biff Rose to Rodgers and Hammerstein; sung in a voice tinged with Peter Yarrow and Jesse Winchester.

It is a strange and variegated collection of music that reflects Michael Johnson's catholic sensibilities; his talent extends beyond any set limits or rigidly defined styles. His own view of his music-making process is that "you should put the best of your taste on your album. If it happes to be in nine different bags, that's just too bad, that's what it is. I don't know if I'll ever be anything more than a hybrid."

"I know that what is expected is an evolution into a sameness in approach. But I don't indent to do that." That attitude is, to say the least, refreshing.