25 October, Spiegeltent, HBAF18 By Michael Hawksworth
“Thinking aloud is a dangerous process”, says Greg Johnson, with absent-minded plunks on his electric piano, as if only now recognising the flaw in his plan. Musicians aren’t particularly known for their volubility – I mean isn’t it more like Every Song Is a Story?
But he natters on anyway.
He tells us, yes, he took the photos that illustrate his songs on the screen behind him – but not like its any big deal. This is the second musician I’ve seen in the Spiegeltent in almost as many nights that’s chosen to hitch images to his songbook in this way, the other being Delaney Davidson. But whereas Delaney’s were somewhat self-consciously stylised psycho-dramas, Greg’s images are, well, not so hot and heavy. “As you can see, I’ve been quite literal with the pictures”, he says introducing a song about the sun, “I had to stare at the sun to take the pictures, its taken me years to recover.” It turns out Greg’s hilarious, the anti-Delaney. Not for him any portentous inter-song surrealist poetry – instead,
“It’s too beautiful down in the South Island, it’s not good for you, you need a bit of dinge [-iness]. A man in an alley lying in his own urine (for example) … That could be me if I don’t keep working.”
We start to realise that this is exactly the person you might want for company, should you be down on your luck in an alley, or just in the green room after a gig, smoking a joint. After introducing us to his wonderful bass-player Ben (Goldenhorse) King, he warns us that he will now make use of an automated rhythm track for the next number – but as he points out, “The robots are coming, might as well get used to it.”
You can feel the bonhomie in the room. He’s got us. He sings about normal stuff – places unvisited, love, hubris, unfortunate friends, disappointment (watching England lose at football again), his apartment in Los Angeles (his photos of which make LA look as joyless as Hawera – “glamorous eh?”).
He’s got a warm, reassuring voice that sounds sometimes like Elvis Costello, but minus the bitterness and exasperation. Also like Costello, he’s all about the song-craft, without any genre-flagging or affectations; intelligent MOR, if you like, mostly tinged with wistfulness and melancholy. There’s an urbane unpretentiousness about it that makes his songs beautiful and affecting – even for me, who’s not really into this kind of thing. It all seems so effortless and direct, the songs, the musicianship, the conversation … “The Greg Johnson Set was aptly named after me. Because I was the main talent” he explains. “I think I’ve been in America too long. I needed to get back to some New Zealand self-loathing”.
Toward the end of the gig, you just really get the feeling no one wants him to stop. He remembers a time after a gig in Wellington when he got stoned with Sam Hunt, who removed the windows from his hotel room by undoing the screws.
Greg and Ben take their bows to long applause from the packed house. No one moves. Thankfully they come back for an encore.
Apparently Sam Hunt had pretty average weed.