I like this Johnny Newman kid. And this Johnny Newman kid likes Bob Dylan.
To say that the specter of Robert Zimmerman hangs over Newman is to state the obvious; which idealistic young white troubadour with an acoustic guitar isn’t influenced by Dylan? But this guy must eat, breathe and sleep Bob. It’s as if Village-era Dylan was photocopied endlessly like so many punk flyers and plopped into the Columbus house-show scene.
Not that Newman doesn’t have anything original to offer. He brought a lot to the table last Thursday at Till’s gallery space, where his thoughtful balladry closed out a sparsely attended evening of spoken word.
Intimate is a good fit for this guy. He noted between songs how much he enjoyed performing without a mic, and indeed his music is geared for tight spaces like living rooms, basements, galleries and dives, places where communal connection seems most attainable and where the hum of the crowd won’t drown out delicate guitar plucking.
Finger-picking was Newman’s weapon of choice; his parts were mostly simple patterns built from gorgeous, gleaming chords. More impressive was his mastery of dynamics. He used volume artfully, bringing his parts in and out of earshot. He kept me tuned in without resorting to gimmickry, and when he finally did strum, it felt like powerful release.
As for Newman’s singing, he’s not exactly an angel, but he’s got the pipes to get by. The aforementioned Dylan affectation is strong, but filtered through a few decades of punk bands and the slew of fellow indie-folks worshipping at the altar of Neutral Milk Hotel. He deployed the harmonica now and then but did not abuse it.
The whole Dylan thing comes through in the lyrics too, in good ways (the strikingly simple imagery of “’Cause when you shut your eyes, your mother cries”) and bad (no one needs more metaphors about characters from the deck of cards). And his signature song “The Authors” rang true when he proclaimed, “We are the authors of so much pain.”
On balance, this was exciting work from an ambitious young songwriter. Watching him find his own voice promises to be a pleasure.