What do Zulu rocker Johnny Clegg, agitprop folkie David Baerwald, slacker violinist Lisa Germano and depressive popster Freedy Johnston have in common? Not a whole heck of a lot, other than that the Bottom Line decided to put them together for the latest of its “In Their Own Words” series.
“In Their Own Words” is a nice idea: Get some powerhouse singer-songwriters together in an informal setting, bring in a moderator, and let everyone play, sing and interact.
The problem at this well-attended outing was, essentially, not enough interacting and decidedly too much moderating.
KPPC’s Rene Engel may be a wonderful disc jockey, but those weren’t the skills called upon for this show. The moderator was expected to ask questions that promoted insights about songwriting –“So do you, uh, live around here?” didn’t cut it.
Capitol’s Clegg was the paterfamilias of the group, and the most mature talent. The best onstage relationship was between him and A&M’s Baerwald (they’ve agreed to work together); Baerwald was the most passionate performer and best musician of the bunch.
Capitol newcomer Germano was the most original talent, a fascinating new songwriting voice. Bar None Records’ Johnston added a sweetness to the proceedings … sort of a Matthew Sweet-ness, actually, with a touch of Michael Penn-manship.
When Clegg talked about South African politics, or all the men sang lyrics for Germano’s “You Make Me Want to Wear Dresses,” or Baerwald had to apologize to his mom (in the second row) for the lyrics to “AIDS and Armageddon,” the show soared. But most of the time, it was “Can you play us a song from your new album Johnny/David/Lisa/Freedy?”
When you’ve got some of the world’s most interesting songwriting talent sitting together on one stage, and the best number of the evening is a Steve Miller tune, something’s wrong.
The second set was enlivened by looser interplay between the singers, and also highlighted guest spots by colleagues Rosie Flores, Susanna Hoffs and Will T. Massey. But by that time Johnston had effectively fallen asleep over his Gibson, so it’s a toss-up.