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Interview with Radio Boston's Anthony Brooks

You’re rushing through the city streets, maybe late for an appointment, distracted by your life’s many obligations, and you blow right past a street musician, hard at work. And you stop. And you listen. And you enter the moment and think, ‘Wow, this guy can really play.’ 

David Johnston is a regular fixture in Harvard Square. You can find him on just about any sunny afternoon with his old Gibson guitar, his signature black jeans, black hat and a white bucket to catch the dollar bills — playing in the park opposite Grendel’s Den. And he’s been doing this for years.

“I just go my 13th permit today, this morning, I started in ’99 doing this,” Johnston said.

Johnston also plays in bars and clubs around town, usually with some of the city’s best musicians, who hold him in very high regard. Players like Duke Levine, John Sands and Marty Ballou — even Peter Wolf, who covered one of Johnston’s songs on his last CD. But Johnston always comes back to the street. 

“What I do has been shaped by the streets,” Johnston said. “I played in bands since I was a kid, but he idea of playing solo, by myself was kind of scary…I can do whatever I want because they’re not really listening to me. But that changed. And I remember the first time I drew a crowd…it’s like a gig.”

More than one music writer around town have referred to Johnston as one of Boston’s best kept secrets of the local music scene. Now he’s just released a new CD: “Carnival of the Soul” is his first in almost 10 years and features Marty Ballou on upright bass, John Sands, who tours with Amie Mann, on drums and Johnston on guitar and vocals.

David Johnston, Carnival of the Soul

ALBUM REVIEW 

January 14, 2012 | By Steve Morse

David Johnston is known for his down-and-dirty, electric blues-rock, but this new album - his first in nearly a decade - is a surprise. The longtime veteran of the local scene put together an acoustic trio with himself on guitar, backed by Peter Wolf bandmember Marty Ballou on standup bass, and John Sands (who tours with Aimee Mann) on a simple drum kit. The results are shocking at first - his usual electric guitarist, Chris Rival, produced the record - then grow on you dramatically. Johnston’s raw emotions and affectingly quirky phrasings have never been better showcased. He has an intimate way of addressing love’s rights and wrongs, from the blunt ballad “Smell the Coffee’’ to the seductive sway of “Casting Pearls.’’ The sonics have a wide range, from gutbucket blues to the recitative, Leonard Cohen-style “Dark Was the Night,’’ the Paul Simon-ish Afro-pop of “Lada,’’ and the gospel stride of the traditional, “There Will Be a Happy Meeting in Glory.’’ It’s the only non-original, but sweeps the album to an upbeat end. (Out now)

Carnival of the Soul

ALBUM REVIEW  

By Alan Lewis

David Johnston once told us by e-mail that he thought we would find his new album to be well worth the wait. Either he was very confident of his work or he has the power to gaze into the future. Though I have only been able to play Johnston's "Carnival of the Soul" once, every moment of it was thoroughly enjoyable.

"Carnival of the Soul" is a deftly made recording that gets a wonderful groove going but then provides changes of pace at just the right points. Johnston (vocals and guitar), Marty Ballou (bass), and their brother John Sands (drums) pull together like a veteran band, which comes as no surprise, in collaboration with producer Chris Rival.

"Carnival of the Soul," too, requires more spins; but it is highly probable this disc will become a quick favorite hereabouts.

"Carnival of the Soul" just may prove to be a career maker for David Johnston.

Several of our readers have been highly pleased to see John Sands, after a tour through our American healthcare system, slip quietly back into the music news. Welcome home!

Having a moment

David Johnston is respected on the local music scene. Now he’s enjoying some wider attention thanks to Peter Wolf.

David Johnston (center) with Chris Rival, John Sands, and Richard Gates at Bull McCabe’s in Somerville. Johnston’s song “I Don’t Wanna Know’’ was covered on Peter Wolf’s new album, “Midnight Souvenirs.’’ (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

By Steve Morse Globe Correspondent / May 28, 2010

File this under good news — deserving but unsung artists can still catch a break. That moment just came for David Johnston, a longtime local singer-songwriter whose song “I Don’t Wanna Know’’ was just covered on Peter Wolf’s new album, “Midnight Souvenirs.’’ It has become the most heavily played rock track on the record, airing everywhere from Boston’s WZLX-FM (100.7) to Little Steven’s “Underground Garage’’ on satellite radio. It fairly pops out of the speakers.

“I admire Peter and look up to him,’’ says Johnston. “To have him do my song is a dream. Every songwriter would want something like this, but because it’s Peter, it’s even more special.’’

Wolf, who also fronts Boston’s J. Geils Band, has frequently attended Johnston’s weekly Tuesday night residency at Bull McCabe’s in Somerville, where he fell in love with the tune. “A lot of people would say, Hey, that sounds like a Geils song,’’ Wolf says. “And one day I jumped up and joined David on it.’’ The song took on a more vivid dimension when guitarist Duke Levine (who also has played with Johnston) pumped up the volume when it was recorded in one take.

“It was one of those serendipity things that came out well,’’ Wolf says with a laugh.

Besides being a great career boost, the song is a reminder of the respect that the ever-humble Johnston commands locally. He has attracted the best local musicians to play his gigs at Bull’s (he also headlines Toad in Cambridge tomorrow), luring such Boston all-stars as Levine and bassist Marty Ballou (who are both in Wolf’s touring band), guitarists Chris Rival (who is producing an all-acoustic disc for Johnston), Tim Gearan, Steve Sadler, and Steve Mayone, drummer John Sands (who tours with Aimee Mann) and bassist Richard Gates, who has played with Suzanne Vega. They mesh with Johnston’s loose but highly unique mix of swampy delta blues, subtle jazz, Dylan-steeped folk, and far-out psychedelia.

“David is absolutely himself. There’s no one else like him,’’ says Sands, who also works periodically with Johnston in One Thin Dime, another unsung local act.

A typical Tuesday night at Bull’s is packed with musicians. Recently, as Johnston cranked out his twangy tunes on a crisp, vintage-sounding National guitar, many of them shared their praise.

“I love his hooks and I love the Stones-y feel he has,’’ said harmonica ace Johnnie Mac.

“He’s very inspirational. He’s true to his music and it has paid off for him,’’ added Josh Buckley of the Gilded Splinters.

“He’s a good example to the next generation. He doesn’t compromise,’’ said veteran guitarist Noah Maltsberger.

Each week Johnston blasts into songs like “I Don’t Wanna Know’’ — which, he admits, is about a jaded love relationship — the gospel-sounding “To the Well,’’ and a raft of other originals that further jump across Memphis soul, reggae, and tripped-out rock akin to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.

The predominant motif, though, is the blues. “David has a great love for the tradition of the music,’’ says Wolf. When Johnston was a teenager in New Hampshire, he ignored mainstream radio in favor of listening to the likes of Billie Holiday, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters. He also cherishes the legacy of Club 47 in Harvard Square. He appreciates that legacy on the many days he busks in Harvard Square, though he notes, “I don’t want to stress it because a lot of people have negative opinions about street musicians.’’ (Go catch Johnston on the street and you’ll change your mind.)

The next step is to release a new album. Tentatively titled “Carnival of the Soul,’’ Johnston has been recording it at Chris Rival’s Middleville Studio in North Reading. It will mark Johnston’s first CD in eight years. “I’m a chronic procrastinator,’’ he says.

Above all, he’s just happy to fit into the local community. “I realize I’m not one of the stars of the scene,’’ he says, “but I feel blessed to be part of it.’’

A little serendipity never hurt, either.

 

Excerpt from review of the Club D'elf double cd

Electric Moroccoland/So Below (2011)


"But the best track is a mesmerizing seven-minute cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down," featuring vocalist and guitarist David Johnston. Delta blues meets swamp rock in excelsis. Johnston's second track, "Pharoah," another blues, this time lasting almost eight minutes, is almost as good."

(These two tracks feature Mike Rivard, Duke Levine, Dana Colley, Tommy Benedetti, Mr. Rourke and John Medeski.)

Ranking of "I Don't Wanna Know"

Original manager of the Rolling Stones and SiriusXM DJ, Andrew Loog Oldham ranks the Peter Wolf single "I Don't Wanna Know" at number 3 for the year 2010. SiriusXM DJ and Springsteen guitarist Little Steven ranks it at number 8 for the year 2010.

Rolling Stone Magazine on Midnight Souvenirs

Rolling Stone magazine names Peter Wolf's Midnight Souvenirs (which includes Wolf's cover of Johnston's "I Don't Wanna Know") one of the top 30 releases of 2010.

Excerpt from Huffington Post review of Wolf's Midnight Souvenirs

"Wolf co-wrote all but two of the songs, which skillfully cover a lot of musical ground. His 'Thick As Thieves' is another highlight, drenched in blues with an intro that could pass for a vintage recording discovered in a North Mississippi cellar. Wolf said he actually used his cell phone to record friend and local musician/subway performer David Johnston ('a great bottleneck guitar player') at a Boston park."

On David Johnston Band's Previous Residency

David Johnston’s Tuesday-night residency at Bull McCabe’s is one of the best-kept secrets around town. The right people are always in the room, including some of the best local talent as well as a few who’ve graduated to star status. Johnston is a humble man (you can sometimes find him busking in Harvard Square). You wouldn’t hear it from him that he wrote one of the biggest songs to grace classic rock radio this year, Peter Wolf’s “I Don’t Wannna Know,” from the Geils singer’s newest album, Midnight Souvenirs. Johnston’s songs are weathered to the bone and take the life of whatever feeling is associated with the day. It’s always a treat to see him at Toad too.

Rock Legend Peter Wolf Still Churning Out Hits

 

From “Love Stinks” to “Musta Got Lost” to its #1 single “Centerfold” the J. Geils Band is one of the most successful New England rock bands.

J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf was with the band for all of its hits, but now he’s touring as a solo artist. Since the group broke up many years ago, Wolf has had his own solo career, producing music that reflects his passion for rock, R&B, the blues and country. His new album “Midnight Souvenirs” is Wolf’s latest effort.

“Midnight Souvenirs” includes some straight-ahead rock and roll, as well as more delicate duets with voices as diverse as Shelby Lynn, Neko Case and Merle Haggard. The album is Wolf’s latest love-letter to the musical styles and influences that inspire him.

Throughout his career, Wolf’s music continues to evolve and earn high praise. Rolling Stone Magazine voted his last CD — “Sleepless” — among the 500 best rock albums of all time.

Boston's Rock Roots

The night to visit Tir Na Nog, however, is Tuesday. David Johnston is a local roots rocker who has held down the Tuesday night residency here for more than a year. He has an all-star band support him every week, featuring guitar players Duke Levine and Stu Kimball who have recently toured with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bob Dylan, respectively. Peter Wolf, of local J. Geils Band fame, is a regular and sometimes sits in on a few songs with David as well. With that kind of pedigreed backing band who continues to believe in his music and the power of the small stage week after week, it seems to be only a matter of time before the rest of the world hears about David Johnston.