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Published: 2001/08/21
by Joe Urtz

Junior Brown, Johnny D’s, Somerville, MA- 8./16

His band already assembled onstage, Junior Brown awaited his big introduction at Johnny D's. I could see him standing poised behind the club's kitchen doors, Guit-steel in hand, white cowboy hat atop his head. The eager crowd roared as the words rang out: "Won't you please welcome, Junior Brown!" Before Junior could make a move, a hustling waiter with a full tray of food cut past him and burst into the cheering room, no doubt the loudest ovation for barbecue in Johnny D's history. A smiling Junior trailed right behind, following intently in the waiter's wake for several strides before cutting up to the stage and joking, "Sorry, but I was distracted by some barbecue."

The spotlight didn’t stray far from ol’ "Loonier" Junior after that. With jaw-dropping command of his customized double-necked guitar, Junior took the crowd on a switchback joyride through renegade country music territory. Throughout his performance, Brown switched effortlessly between the two halves of his Guit-steel, making seamless transitions from shivery-sweet slide steel leads to snarling, down-and-dirty electric guitar runs.

The inspiration for Brown’s unconventional Guit-steel instrument apparently came to him in 1985, in a dream born out of frustration. Junior was annoyed he couldn’t switch easily from playing lap-steel guitar to stand-up electric, not without creating a break in the flow of music. By merging his two favorite instruments, Brown was finally able to switch between the two in a flash, even during the same song, and the results helped jump-start his career.

Junior’s impossibly-deep baritone voice is his other special instrument. Deeper and richer than a Texas oil well, Brown’s craggy croon is the perfect vehicle for transporting listeners to country music heaven. At Johnny D’s on this night, Brown’s robust voice was at its laid-back, gut-bucket best. Covering many of his finest semi-cornball compositions, Brown ladled out the clever lyrics with chaw-in-cheek charm and drawling ease. One early standout was "My Wife Thinks You’re Dead," in which a man informs a dangerous old flame that he’s definitely not available for another go-round:

"Somebody spread the rumor that you had lost your life
That’s the way I heard it and what I told my wife
Now, here you’re showin’ up again and talk is gettin’ ‘round
And I can see that one of us will have to leave this town
If you think that I want trouble, then you’re crazy in your head
‘Cause you’re wanted by the Police and my wife thinks you’re dead."

The first half of Brown’s 90-minute set emphasized tight renditions of songs from his back catalog, along with selections from his forthcoming album, "Mixed Bag." Brown kept most of these songs on a relatively short leash, while executing them in razor sharp fashion. He’d barely pause for an instant before launching into his next tune. Like one of his musical idols, Jimi Hendrix — whom he once met — Brown left ample solo space within each song to showcase his well-honed guitar talent.

With his Guit-steel supported on a stand in front of him and tilted forward for all to observe, Junior repeatedly hunched over to fire off his often-breathtakingly frenetic solos with aw-shucks ease, leaving heads shaking in "how’d he do that?!" wonderment. Almost demonic in his intensity at times, Brown poured out torrents of Django-esque jazz, crunchy backroads rock, shimmering waves of Hawaiian steel, and yearning soul-blues. Then he’d pull the song back to its thematic groove, which never strayed far from Brown’s traditional country roots.

Of his newest material, "Cagey Bea" (as in KGB), was a particular delight. Brown’s sinister steel guitar drove this sly tune about a sexy double agent from the U.S.S.R. Junior also stretched out on his new interpretation of Ernest Tubb’s old hit, "Kansas City Blues." This song will feature a horn-driven arrangement on the new album, but this night folks had to make do with an extra helping of Junior’s blazing blues guitar work.

Brown was backed by a three-man band that provided rock-solid support. Worthy of special praise was the passionate drumming of Brown’s musical partner of 27 years, Tommy Lewis. Lewis took one long, pounding, jazz-rock drum solo that gave Brown (and the audience) a well-needed breather, and which roused the house in vigorous fashion.

Towards the end of the show, Junior stretched out further on guitar. He retooled his love-stuck anthem, "I Hung It Up," with high-speed jazz runs. He capped the show off with a high-octane instrumental medley of surf-and-kitchen-sink numbers, running from "Wipeout" through the TV theme music of "Bonanza," "Rawhide," and "The Twilight Zone." Brown brought it all home with a souped-up take on "Secret Agent Man," throwing in a killer dose of Hendrix’s "Foxy Lady," for good measure.

Junior Brown’s a man who knows how to have some serious fun. If you’ve despaired of ever learning to love country music, do yourself a favor and give Junior a listen. Better yet, check out one of his live shows, where he really thrives. Just make sure you get close enough to the stage to see how Junior handles that big Guit-steel.

For this show at Johnny D’s, Brown performed with his Guit-steel #2 (aka "Big Red"). His first Guit-steel, "Old Yeller," is now on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame. As Junior has said about that first Guit-steel, "I was going to make it work, one way or another. The first night that I got it, I went to Nashville and did a show with it. I was just sure that it would work, and I was sure glad that it did." Brown has a third Guit-steel in the works, reportedly of golden bird’s-eye maple. He also has a pedal Guit-steel in production that he claims will be "really revolutionary." Robert Randolph, are you listening?

The night's opening act, local up-and-comers, the Stumbleweeds, were the perfect country appetizer. The band connected with the crowd right away, good-naturedly remarking that they'd make their set short because they were eager to hear Junior, too. Their original tune, "Nashville to Nashua," left an especially fine set-closing impression.

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