Johnny Bertram and the Golden Bicycles: A Performer’s Review

In Human Interest, Non-fiction on July 29, 2011 at 7:31 pm

In my line of work, they say effective writing means getting straight to the point, so here it is:

On the 20th of August, a cool band straight out of Jackson, Mississippi headlined an evening show at the Empyrean.  I came an audience member and fellow performer, and left a student.

I’m not exactly sure how you would classify Johnny Bertram and his golden comrades; perhaps an alternative shade of folk-rock.  But as I watched them launch into the evening’s performance, it became abundantly clear that the band was like a living prism refracting all that is good about being from the south.  And they had brought that—all of it—right here to Spokane.

Since you may not have been there, here’s how the night played out:

After a brief “good evening,” the band gets underway, and in seconds the house is transferred from the realm of calm, cool silence to a special place you can only find with live music—an exhilarating blend of pure adrenaline, passion, impression, and memorization.  From the thumping, pumping drums, to the swell and boom of the bass guitar, to the wave of guitar tones—the attention of this house is definitely arrested.  And for good reason: These guys aren’t here to just play a show.  They’re here to leave us with something special.

The setup wasn’t complicated; there were four members of the band performing: An impressive drummer named Dave, a dazzling guitar player playing a cherry red Epiphone version of a Gibson 335 with all the finesse in the world, a bass player that doubled as a fiddle player, and Johnny himself playing on a well-worn Martin acoustic, and now and then sporting a mouth harp to go along with it.  The music seemed to center itself around the tones of that old acoustic—enough rock n’ roll to keep the music out of the realm of folk, but enough Americana influence to keep it just outside the realm of plain old rock.  An interesting antidote to the “same old, same old” syndrome we tend to hear on the radio.

As the band plays on, a friend and I whisper back and forth, speculating as to who their major influences are.  Bruce picks up on elements of REO and Lynard Skynard, and I note a nod or two to more modern influences like The Shins, who seem to flow in a similar musical vein.  (And by the way, I was right about The Shins; I talked to Johnny after the show and he confirmed it fair and square.) But Bertram cited several totally obscure influences like Neil Young, David Bazon, and even Huey Lewis and the News.  “Lesser known bands, too, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam,” he joked  from stage.  “You may not have heard of em’ yet, but you will someday.” In between songs, comments from the band reflect good ole’ southern hospitality, right from the stage.

About two thirds of the way through the set, the band calls an audible and launches into what Johnny describes as a new song they’ve only played for about a month now, called “Relax.” About the time I’m thinking—and I may have even said it out loud at one point—that a slide guitar would fit in nicely, guess who grabs his slide? The guitar player, and he’s no stranger to the art of slide work on that bright red guitar of his either.  There are cheers from the intimate crowd of about 25 or 30, and there are occasional grins of contentment amongst the band, and you can’t help but have fun, tap your foot, and let loose.  This entire building has become a back porch somewhere on the Mississippi Delta, it feels like, and these are our musicians.

At the end of the show, the sound guy waves some signal to Johnny and he says “how many more songs we got?”

“One or two,” says the sound man.

“Okay,” Johnny replies into the microphone.  “Then we’ll do two.” The audience chuckles a little, and the band launches into their final tunes.  Johnny introduces the last song: “It’s about hunting on private land,” he says with a big grin, and then the band starts a catchy upbeat song I had hoped would never end.

The city of Spokane missed out—that is, if you were NOT at the Empyrean on August 20th to see Johnny Bertram and the Golden Bicycles.  I guess what I’m trying to say, folks, is this: I’m not sure what it was, I’m not sure when it happened.  But everyone walked out on the evening of August 20th with something good—something special—that they didn’t have when they walked in.

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