Despite calling Vermont home, the origins of Dan Johnson’s music career lie here in Upstate New York, where he first strummed his guitar to the public inside where Valentine’s Music Hall and Beer Joint once stood.
Located off Albany’s New Scotland Avenue, Valentine’s was a popular venue for live music before it succumbed to a local hospital’s progressive movement to expand last year. Johnson, along with his Expert Sidemen, had hosted his Americana music series every Tuesday night featuring the likes of Woody Pines, Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs, The Farewell Drifters, Hamell on Trial, JP Harris and the Tough Choices, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, and Eastbound Jesus.
Valentine’s is gone, but Johnson’s Americana sound continues today with the release of his latest, Mercury 85. The album was released on May 27th.
“Most of the album is about people I’ve known,” said Johnson, “especially folks from the time I spent in Buffalo, but also moving from New York to Vermont, and life changes [too]. The songs mostly use driving and cars as a metaphor for writing,” he added. “I’m curious about what other people get out of the songs so don’t want to go crazy breaking it down.”
Mercury 85 is Johnson’s third album and features twelve original songs that were all recorded at his home in Jericho, VT. It presents a departure from the live instrumentation of his previous releases, featuring drum machines, amp modeling and MIDI instruments to support his acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin. While the instrumental support has taken some new turns, said Johnson, the songwriting remains rooted in storytelling and first person narration with strong poetic imagery.
Johnson’s unassuming approach to the mic is intended to allow the story to take the spotlight: Well-matched with his low-key but welcoming attitude towards the listener. The presentation is reminiscent of Bob Dylan, as each song tells a story surrounding common people remembering yesterday, lamenting today, and looking forward to a better tomorrow. Never does there seem to be a resolution to change. As with “Rose”, for which Johnson only recently released a video, the protagonist speaks to another about a woman he casually met at a bar his band had played. Over the course of one night, skirting around the truth and telling lies over cups of coffee, he fell in love. But, it’s apparent he has since spent a long span of time searching her at each bar he happens to play and seems to have given up hope on ever finding her. “If you ever see this girl, she’s got a tattoo of a rose. Tell her that I miss her when the chilly wind blows.”
Johnson attributes the country landscape of his new home for the stripped down production of his latest release. The focus on the storytelling is certainly his strong suit, and is the most appealing factor to this album. This same quality may also be off-putting to the casual music fan used to a contrasting style, but it is a sound that can easily find itself played at trendy coffee houses. And, for those who appreciate good storytelling, Mercury 85 is worth a preview (and purchase) on Bandcamp or contact the artist directly on his Facebook page.
Key Tracks: Rose, Mercury 85, and Allentown.