Johnson looked the part of being an outlaw. While on his debut disc, "The Dollar," he donned a cowboy hat, wore a cowboy shirt and sported a close trimmed beard and smile, Johnson looked far more rugged live with his beard grown out real long and not so straight, no cowboy hat, a black t-shirt instead of a cowboy shirt and hair parted in the middle flying to the sides. He didn't look like he stepped out of GQ for the country crowd.
There is a lot to be said for coming off as authentic. And Johnson did that in his music as well. His 2008 CD "That Lonesome Song" was a left-field hat, yielding a hit single with In Color, three Grammy nominations and a lot of acclaim. Quite surprising given how honest and raw sounding the music is, especially compared to the music on the country airwaves by the likes of Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney, for example.
Johnson made it clear live from the get go that he was the real deal with the anguished hard country of High Cost of Living where Johnson sang of a broken relationship due to drugs and a whore. His voice was very full sounding with a tremendous amount of timbre, underscoring the emotion of the songs.
He had a strong bent towards traditional country as well as the outlaw country music of folks like Waylon Jennings and Hank Jr. He followed a good take on Between Jennings and Jones from the new CD with Waylon's classic, Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?
He opted for a slew of covers after awhile, saying, "This is the part of the show we play whatever the ---- we want," with Ray Price's For the Good Times, Bob Seger's Turn the Pages, Merle Haggard's That's the Way Love Goes, Johnny Paycheck's Take This Job and Shove It and finally closing the night with David Allan Coe's The Ride.
Everything sounded very strong, particularly Johnson's stellar voice. Except for a so so take on For the Good Times, Johnson and his backing band were sharp throughout. The only problem was that it became a little taxing on the crowd. A good chunk of them left by the end of the evening. Johnson probably could have served himself better by cutting the length of the show - not that there was fat there - but there was no obvious end or climax to the evening the way Johnson played and played and played.
Johnson's had a few hits for others. He did a good take on Give It Away, a big hit for George Strait. One song he did not play was his own Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, a big big hit for Trace Adkins. Just as well because the song would have seemed out of place with the rest of the material.
His six-piece backing band easily kept up with Johnson with the pedal steel a key instrument. They came across a well-oiled group, knowing just what to do without displaying a "been there, done that" feel.
Johnson was not a big talker, probably going at least half the concert without saying anything. He lightened up a tad as he went along, but very rarely cracked a smile.
Johnson deserved a tremendous amount of credit for making the album he did tough subject matter and all and doing his music live the way he wants it. That will serve him well.
Jerrod Niemann opened with a good 65-minute set. The Kansas native suffered the fate of being on the late Category 5 Records, which closed shop under cloudy circumstances and no CD from the singer. Niemann sings well with a big voice and an affable, often very funny stage presence. His claim to fame was that he had a number one song done by Garth Brooks, the Chris LeDoux tribute Good Ride Cowboy.
Niemann's a funny guy, but he also grew quite bawdy in many of his comments about sex and drinking. He didn't leave too much to the imagination. He also dummied down to the audience, doing covers requested by a few who seemingly had too much to drink.