The holiday season usually proves slow for touring bands and show goers alike, but the House of Righteous Music has been extra busy this year with four shows booked for December. The first of these was Freedy Johnston. I have been a fan of Johnston’s since This Perfect World came out in 1994. And he’s been a fan of Madison since then; the record was produced at Smart Studios with Butch Vig (who would later become a co-conspirator in their irreverent cover band Know-It-All Boyfriends). I’ve seen Johnston many, many times over the years, and if you had told me at any of those shows that someday he would play my basement I would have called you crazy. Crazily enough, this was actually the second time he played the basement this year, the first time was with Jon Dee Graham and Susan Cowsill as the Hobart Brothers & Lil’ Sis.
Something about the basement seems to bring out the best in the performers, whether it’s trying new material, telling the stories behind the songs that they’ve never told before, or playing songs they don’t usually play (usually as a request). And Johnston did all three. I was peering over his shoulder as he wrote his set list in the dining room. “Was there something you wanted to hear?” he asked, before continuing modestly, “not to assume that you know my songs.” I asked for “Seventies Girl” and he said he’d be happy to play it, to which a surprised Jay Moran (merch girl (his words) for the night) claimed he’d never heard him play that song, “and I love that song!” He also took Chadd’s request for “Responsible,” Bill’s for “Lucky One” and Hilton’s for “something he never plays live.”
It didn’t take long for him to check off Hilton’s request. Between telling the story behind the song “The First to See the Earth,” which had never been played live before, and tuning his guitar it took several minutes before he even played it. “Geez Freedy,” he chided himself, “you should be on the second song by now.” Not that anyone was complaining, his rambling stories with their tangents were just as entertaining as the songs. On several occasions he would finish an introduction with “I don’t think I’ve ever told that story before.” Halfway through the set my sister called for “Seventies Girl,” also her favorite. “Don’t worry Kiki, I told you I’d play it.” I protested that it wasn’t me, but it did get the song played right then. And it was awesome. I’ve waited a long time to hear that live. Alas, he couldn’t do them all, Gina’s request for “I’m Not Hypnotized” was met with “I wish I could play that.”
The songs slated for the long-awaited Neon Repairman were really terrific and stuck with me after just one listen, such as the aforementioned “Leave the Earth” which is about Yuri Gagarin, and the title track which parallels “Wichita Lineman.” He pulled out the ukulele for one of his only covers of the night. “I’m convinced Nick Lowe wrote this song on the ukulele,” he announced before playing a pretty sweet version of “Cruel to Be Kind.” (I think he may be right.) That song tied opener Louka Patenaude’s intriguing version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” for best cover of the night.
Yep, another great night of music in the basement. I know that for sure because both performers said they couldn’t wait to do it again.