Live Review: Simon Joyner at Grapefruit Records; Will Johnson house show Thursday…

Category: Blog,Reviews — Tags: , , — @ 8:45 am April 26, 2022
Simon Joyner at Grapefruit Records, April 25, 2022.

by Tim McMahan,

I was reading the liner notes to Simon Joyner’s new yet-to-be-released album, Songs from a Stolen Guitar, and the writer, James Jackson Toth, said that Joyner recently turned 50, which was a head-spinner. I remember seeing a curly-haired Simon play at the Howard Street Tavern way back in the early ‘90s. It literally seems like yesterday. He was a young gunslinger back then with a rep for being a rising star of national proportions, at least amongst those of us who shopped at The Antiquarium.

There were two things that stood out on his first cassette, Umbilical Chords, which came out in ’92. First, he was one heck of a songwriter in the Bob Dylan vein, a real coffee-shop crooner who could bang out a song on an acoustic guitar with a punk-rock intensity. The second was that he could not give two shits if his voice was off pitch or out of tune, as long as he could convey whatever was on his mind. That Peter Brady-at-puberty singing style followed him through a lot of albums and a lot of live shows and I never knew if he was doing it on purpose or if that’s just the way he sang. And I still don’t know.

But what I do know is that seven years ago, around when he recorded Grass, Branch & Bone, his 13th studio album, that off-pitch warble faded away, and Simon began singing mostly on pitch, on key, rarely stepping in the vocal pot-holes I remembered from his early days. And maybe I’m just imagining things, but his songwriting structures became more concise. Songs that may have had five verses in the past now only had three, and were better for them (to me, anyway), almost as if he was writing pop songs instead of folk songs — tunes like “You Got Under My Skin” and “Yellow Jacket Blues” and the just-released “Tekamah” off the new album are short and sweet, with clever hooks.

And maybe I’m dreaming this, but Simon’s arrangements on his recordings also seemed more straightforward or certainly less complicated than the densely packed, layered sounds heard on 2006’s Skeleton Blues, for instance.

That’s a long-winded way of saying it’s been fun listening to Simon’s style evolve over the past 30 years. Through it all, the songwriting and the lyrics never lacked in depth, incisiveness, heart and soul. That was underscored Monday night at Grapefruit Records as Simon, accompanied only with his guitar, played a selection of songs that spanned from ’94 up to tunes from that new album.

Here’s the set list (that I was there for; I don’t know if he played an encore):

“Three Well-Amed Arrows” from Heaven’s Gate (1995)

“Carolyn’s Got a Secret” from Songs from a Stolen Guitar (2022)

“You Never Know” from Pocket Moon (2019)

“Nocturne” from Hotel Lives (2001)

“Old Days” from Grass, Branch & Bone (2015)

“Javelin” from The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll (1994)

“Don’t Tell Bobby I’m Through Singing These Blues” from Low Fidelities & Infidelities (2019), but also likely a new version that’ll be on the new album

“Evening Song to Sally” from Lost with the Lights On (2004)

“Parachute” from Songs for the New Year (1997)

“Yellow Jacket Blues” from Pocket Moon

“The Actor” from the new album

“My Life is Sweet” from Hotel Lives

The solo acoustic versions of these songs were so good I forgot what the recorded versions sounded like. Based on the audience reaction, a lot of folks in addition to me count “Javelin” as among their favorites. I was lucky to hear him sing it live. I think the last time I watched it performed was at the Cowardly Traveller album release show at Howard Street Tavern.

There were a lot of fellow Omaha musicians scattered among the 50 or so patrons who either sat in chairs or stood among the album racks. I said yesterday this was his first show in four years when in fact it was his first Omaha show in four years — a warm-up for a tour that begins in Europe next week. The new record comes out May 20. I’m hoping he’ll have a formal album release show at some point to give everyone there last night a chance to compare and contrast how those new songs sound played with a full band.

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Speaking of solo acoustic shows, Will Johnson of Centro-matic fame is playing a solo acoustic house show Thursday night in Omaha as part of an Undertow tour (Undertow is a website/company that helps artists book house show tours). Tim Kiefer is the host. For more information (including location) go here, where you can also purchase tickets.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2022 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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