Despite a touch of paranoia and the inevitable lingering shadow of you-know-who, Julian Lennon looked impressive at the House of Blues, seemingly comfortable with himself, in control of his music, in touch with his heritage, yet determined to become his own man. But can he?
Few artists have as tough a double burden to bear as Julian Lennon, who not only has his father’s canonized legacy looming over him, but also his own early success in 1984-85. On his first try, he scored a hit album (“Valotte”) that produced two Top 10 singles — and then a quick followup was panned and unleashed a backlash. Now 36, he’s touring after a seven-year layoff with a new album “Photograph Smile.”
Despite the time away, the bitterness has not entirely dissipated; in an interview with Beatlefan magazine, Lennon accused his stepmother Yoko Ono of trying to sabotage his career in England. And even onstage, he couldn’t resist needling critics for saying that he sounds like his dad, adding “Well, you know what? — yes I do!” It’s time to move on.
On that count, Lennon’s progress could be compared to moving from one tract house to another in the same neighborhood. With a solid, no-frills, ’70s-style pop/rock band behind him, Julian’s voice is stronger now, capable of more expression in his favorite ballad idiom. He sang a new autobiographical song, “No One But You,” with assured power and fervor, sermonizing about being responsible for solving one’s problems. On the new album’s title track, a touching number about an unfulfilled long-distance relationship, he successfully pulled it off with only electric piano backing. Thankfully, he isn’t content to recycle his own past; he completely retooled his biggest hit “Too Late for Goodbyes” into a Rolling Stones-style rocker and made it work.
As a writer, though, Julian still relies upon the idioms that his father knew — with familiar instrumental counterlines and those achingly nostalgic vocal harmonies cropping up — and has yet to take the next step beyond them.
Indeed, Julian is actually closer to his heritage now than he was in the 1980s: For encores, he offered a couple of rocking oldies, “Slippin’ And Slidin'” and “Stand By Me,” in nearly identical arrangements that John used. It was scary how close Julian came to replicating his dad’s vocals. If he can have fun with this and hammer his own stuff into the repertoire, Julian Lennon may yet rate more than a rock history footnote.