Damon Johnson: ‘Birmingham Tonight’

Released on September 22, 2017 (Double Dragon Records)

Back in the early ’90s, it was quite the task to find decent bands worth listening too. All the major labels had moved on from hairspray and good times to make way for flannel and oppression. In 1993, Virgin Records would release an album by a Birmingham band called Brother Cane. A refreshing change of pace for what was currently being played on the radio. There would be a few other bands that also come to mind that fit in the same mold as Brother Cane. Who remembers Cry of Love and The Screamin Cheetah Wheelies?

Regardless, Brother Cane’s Self–Titled would change my life. This became the soundtrack of the times for me. I recall seeing the band in 1994 at the RPM club in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I was a young 20 something, standing in the front row taking in the talents of this young band. I still have the guitar pick that got thrown at me on this night. The words “Brother Cane” are still faintly visible on the yellow Tortex pick. At the time, Brother Cane singer Damon Johnson had quickly become my new hero. Johnson was the total package — great voice, killer guitarist and amazing songwriter. I was mesmerized by what this man had to offer musically. This album had such an impact on me that when I pass on, the song “The Road” is what I want played at my funeral. That song sums up what life is to me.

As the ’90s would pass by, Brother Cane would release two more albums, 1995’s Seeds and 1997’s Wishpool. In these years, Brother Cane would frequent Canada many times. On the Seeds tour, the band would once again grace the RPM club. That would be the summer of 1995. In the winter of 1996, Brother Cane would be back for a small Canadian tour. It would be the first date of the tour at Toronto’s Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street, a seedy little dive that still remains today, that I would finally have the chance to meet my hero. I was shaking as I made my way towards Johnson. It would turn out that I had nothing to worry about. Johnson was such a nice guy. We chatted briefly and I would venture home a happy man. Two days later, I was back to see the band again as my girlfriend and I made our way to London, Ontario, Canada to see the band on a very cold winter’s evening at a cool bar called Call The Office.

Brother Cane would come to Toronto once again two years later to Lee’s Palace on the Wishpool tour. It was this show that really still stands out in my mind. Just as this show ended, a fight would break out in the bar. To make a long story short, a local off duty police officer would end up punching out the gentleman who was causing all the trouble. As my girlfriend (a different girl from two years prior I am sorry to say) made our way out the doors of the club, there was Johnson standing outside by the band’s bus. Some people had congregated around him. As the people dispersed, I struck up a conversation with Johnson. Not sure that he remembered me from our previous meeting two years prior, but regardless Johnson and myself must have talked for an hour outside the club. What a thrill that was, right?

Let’s fast forward about eight years — Johnson is now the co-guitarist with the Alice Cooper band. We would meet again. Johnson of course remembered me from that crazy night at Lee’s Palace. In the next year, our paths would cross three to four more times. One meeting that may seem bizarre was at a Toronto Blue Jays game. The Alice Cooper band was on a small Ontario, Canada tour. On the off night, they would take in the Blue Jays/Angels game. As I was walking the concourse, I would see Cooper drummer Eric Singer. I kept walking. As I came to the concession stand on the third base side, there was Johnson, with co guitarist Keri Kelli and bassist Chuck Garric. I quickly approached Johnson, “Hey Damon, it’s Tyson!” He jerked back and responded, “Hey man, what are you doing here? Oh my God. Wait till I tell Lynda (Johnson’s wife) I ran into you here!” For those reading, this will give you an indication of how great of a guy Johnson is. It was at this time that Johnson made sure to introduce me to Kelli and Garric. Something that he really didn’t have to do, but because he is such a gentleman it was the only natural thing for him to do.

Since this small Canadian tour, I have yet to see Johnson again. We would exchange e-mails over the years, but with changing bands would come changing e-mail addresses. We would lose touch. Over the years, I have followed his career closely. For those who are familiar with Johnson as a music fan, it can be attested that Johnson is a huge Thin Lizzy fan. So where music would lead him next was a very proud moment for him as well as me — the fan. Johnson would get the opportunity to join his ultimate favorite band, Thin Lizzy. Of course with all this said, this incarnation of Thin Lizzy would morph into its own entity which would become the Black Star Riders. The band released its latest album Heavy Fire earlier this year to critical acclaim.

So as we move forward, I do apologize to the readers anticipating the review to begin immediately. The intro is quite a long winded monstrosity of words, but from my standpoint, I thought it was very important to give a little bit of history on my pure affection for Damon Johnson as a musician, how this album relates to me and most of all, how I perceive him as a person. It’s almost like those long previews at the beginning of the movies. Wait for it…

Birmingham Tonight is a great live performance, recorded earlier this year — that’s right you guessed it, in Birmingham, Alabama, USA — that captures the pure essence of Johnson’s long career. The album opens with “Horses And Needles” from Brother Cane‘s Seeds album. It’s so exciting to hear this song live after all these years. Black Star Riders‘ “Killer Instinct” would follow. It is fantastic to hear Johnson’s vocal rather than that of Black Star Riders vocalist Ricky Warwick. No disrespect to Warwick,  he is amazing in his own right, but to hear Johnson sing this song reaffirms to me how talented he truly is. It is obvious that Johnson’s influence on the band’s music is very prevalent. “Dead” from Johnson’s last solo EP sounds fantastic and fits the set perfectly. “Dayton, Ohio” off of Johnson’s 2010 album Release showcases Johnson’s talent as a songwriter.

From here, the setlist really starts to smoke (not that it was lacking by any means). “Hard Act To Follow” from Bro Cane’s debut album works the crowd into a frenzy as the first chords are heard. The tone of Johnson’s guitar is so soulful and beefy as he rips the lead between the verses. “Lie In The Bed I Make” from Wishpool sounds exactly as it did back in 1997. Johnson’s vocal is dead on. As I am listening to this song I recollect a meeting I had backstage at the Loud N Lima festival this past summer with Operation Mindcrime guitarist Kelly Gray who actually produced the Wishpool album. I told Gray how much I enjoyed his production on this album. He thanked me and said “I just talked to Damon last week”. We then had a short discussion and that was the end of our meeting. In all though, from this short meeting with Gray, it was obvious the amount of respect that Gray had for Johnson.

As we speak of Kelly Gray, the next track “Slave To The System” from the band of the same name features the amazing talents of Johnson, Gray and Queensrÿche drummer Scott Rockenfeld. I believe I still have a Slave To The System t-shirt at home. As the track begins, Johnson proclaims “This is one that I don’t ever play, but we’re gonna play it right now!” I love the tight heavy groove of this song. “Amphetamine” dips again into the great obscure tracks recorded by Johnson over the years. This song was featured on the hard to find Red Halo album. I love the infectious chorus and the Queens of The Stone Age like guitar rhythm. Next up is a favorite from the Seeds album, “20/20 Faith” makes its presence felt. I recall asking Johnson about this song way back in 1997. My curiosity was about the cool tuning of this song. My thought was that it was in G tuning because of the cool vibe it exuded, but Johnson assured me it was indeed in Drop D tuning. Listening to it 20 years later, the Drop D tuning is very obvious. This song features a killer lead by Johnson. Another composition from Johnson’s Release album, “Pontiac” resonates perfectly. It’s a very nice change of pace. The lyrics are very prolific, with a very Americana type sound, creating the perfect mood. Hearing this song really makes me wish I had been at this performance. “Pontiac” really showcases Johnson’s versatility as an artist.

“Machete” brings back thoughts of the late ’90s. A great track, taken from the Wishpool album. Johnson executes it perfectly. What’s up next you may ask? For those who recall the film Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, this classic song is from that epic horror movie. “And Fools Shine On” sounds as perfect as it did on the big screen all those years ago. I recall seeing the movie in the theater. At the time of viewing, I was unaware that this song would appear in the movie. It made its appearance in a certain scene that created the vibe that obviously the director was going for.  It wasn’t just the movie that this song would make a statement. In 1995, this song was a staple on rock radio. A true masterpiece, with Johnson and his band doing the song the pure justice it so deserves. “Nobody Usin” starts off as Johnson states “Wanna send this song out to the memory of my great friend Mr. Michael Rollings!” A great track from Johnson’s Echo CD. I absolutely love this one. This song possesses such great originality somewhat due in part to Johnson’s fantastic vocal delivery.

“Woman” from Bro Cane’s debut may be the highlight of this amazing live album. The tightness of the band, the vocal delivery of Johnson, compounded with the amazing tone of the guitar makes this masterpiece of a song truly shine throughout. I am getting chills as I listen to this track. With all this said its Johnson’s guitar solo that brings me back to why Johnson was such an influence on me all those years ago. To this day, my admiration for all that Johnson does is truly ingrained in my songwriting and guitar playing. It can be said, your influences truly stick with you for life. It wouldn’t be a Damon Johnson show without representation of the great Thin Lizzy. “The Boys Are Back In Town” simply smokes. Johnson’s Phil Lynott vocal styling’s are so smooth and captivating. The dual leads are executed perfectly. It’s obvious as to what is up next as the cool harmonica intro is heard. Johnson closes out the album with the classic Bro Cane track “Got No Shame”. It sounds gritty, cool and magical. A true piece of rock n roll mastery. Coming through my speakers it’s as if 20 years have never passed.

As I close out my review, I think to myself, “Is this really a review of sorts?” Well kind of, but it’s also about recollections of great memories that these songs invoke. It’s about the time I spent with Johnson. It’s those moments that I will embrace for the rest of my life. Listening to an album, a live one especially isn’t just about the music. It’s where you were, who you were with when you first heard those songs. I found it very important when writing the intro to this review that I give you, the reader an idea of what this artist means to me. I could basically just say, well this song was good; I like that guitar part etc. — which I did, but I also gave a history of the short, sporadic meetings with Damon Johnson and how it also pertained to my life. My hope is this review will get to Mr. Johnson because as Thin Lizzy has influenced him, Damon Johnson has done the same for me.  For that, I am very grateful.

Track List:
01. Horses & Needles
02. The Killer Instinct
03. Dead
04. Dayton, Ohio
05. Hard Act To Follow
06. I Lie In The Bed I Make
07. Slave To The System
08. Amphetamine
09. 20/20 Faith
10. Pontiac
11. Machete
12. And Fools Shine On
13. Nobody Usin’
14. Woman
15. The Boys Are Back In Town
16. Got No Shame

Band Members:
Damon Johnson – lead vocals, guitar
Tony Higbee – guitar, vocals
Tony Nagy – bass, vocals
Jarred Pope – drums

Additional Musicians:
Bruce Andrews – harmonica (16)

Produced by Damon Johnson

Reviewed by Tyson Briden for Sleaze Roxx, October 2017

Damon Johnson‘s “Nobody Usin'” video:


DAMON JOHNSON presents the official video for “Nobody Usin” from his 2016 EP, ‘Echo’. AVAILABLE ATDamon Johnson: http://www.damonjohnson.com/store/damon-john…