Freedy Johnston

As a boy growing up in the farming community of Kinsley, Kansas, Freedy Johnston was drawn to a sign in the town's tiny business district. It showed two arrows pointing in opposite directions. One read "New York City." The other, "San Francisco." At an early age, Johnston knew two things: He wanted to follow that sign in one direction or another, and he wanted to play rock 'n' roll.

Not that Johnston didn't try following the conventional path to adulthood. He enrolled in college at Kansas University, but dropped out after a semester. He moved back to Kinsley and got a job at a diner. It sat right next to the sign with the two arrows.

If destiny wasn't calling Johnston, something was.

So he packed up his things and headed east to New York City, pawning his favorite guitar to pay for the trip. He hoped to send money home to buy the guitar back. It sold before he got the cash together.

That there's a bittersweet irony to this story isn't lost on Johnston. It shows up again and again in his music. From his rough-and-tumble debut, The Trouble Tree, to his most recent album, the sublime Rain On The City, Johnston returns to themes of loss, tough luck, and bad timing.

Johnston's songs are often praised for their literary quality – and deservedly so – but they also hit you on a gut level. As a young man, Johnston was drawn to both the raw energy of punk and the austere beauty of Paul McCartney's vocal melodies. It's no surprise that Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True is among the first albums that inspired him. One can hear Costello's gift for meticulous songcraft and wry storytelling on Johnston's second album, Can You Fly.


When it came out in 1992, Rolling Stone and Spin hailed Can You Fly as a masterpiece. Robert Christgau called it "a perfect album." Its success led to a major label deal with Elektra, for whom Johnston released "This Perfect World" in 1994. Not only did that album showcase Johnston's increasing sophistication and range as a songwriter, but it also included his breakthrough hit, "Bad Reputation."

In the ensuing years, Johnston released three additional albums on Elektra, including 1999′s critically acclaimed Blue Days, Black Nights, produced by T-Bone Burnett. And while he hasn't replicated the radio success of "Bad Reputation," critics have continued to praise Johnston's work effusively, solidifying his reputation as one of the finest and most singular voices in the singer-songwriter genre.

Johnston took a break from songwriting in the '00s, releasing the demo collection The Way We Were and the covers album My Favorite Waste of Time. Then, in 2009, he released his first new album in eight years, Rain On The City. Pitchfork, the Los Angeles Times and others praised the album, calling it one of the most assured efforts of Johnson's career.

Now splitting his time between New York City and Madison, Wis., Johnston is currently writing and recording songs for his next album, tentatively titled Neon Repairman. In an age where the Internet has greatly diminished the power of radio to dictate artistic success, Johnston is poised for perhaps the most exciting stage of his career. At this point, though, it isn't about destiny. Johnston fulfilled that a long time ago. Now, it's about joy – both for Johnston and his fans.

Blue-Eyed Son

Andrew Heilprin a.k.a. Blue-eyed Son was born in the Midwest –– Wisconsin to be precise –– but he did his growing up in sunny Santa Barbara, California. After graduation from college and in between surfing excursions to exotic locales around the globe, he worked odd jobs and eventually formed the “sonic surf smoke punk” band 40 Watt Domain with a few friends.

Domain got fairly close to breaking big, releasing the album Short Wave in 2000 (on the Cultivate label; reissued via Eenie Meenie sub-label Gaki in 2004), playing the Vans Warped Tour and headlining at CBGB’s. Then it all fell apart following a hellacious press- and major-label-packed CMJ show where the band blew out the bass rig and spent the remainder of their set hopelessly trying to regain momentum.

“That was a tough time for me, because we had potential but weren’t able to capitalize on it,” he says. “We hit the ceiling, weren’t able to roll with it.”

During 40 Watt’s seven-year span, the songwriting had basically fallen into Heilprin’s lap, and he’d accumulated a lot of tunes. All along he’d made raising the bar his songwriting goal, inspired in part by Elliott Smith’s very personal ways of composing a song.

“His songwriting was much more complex than the usual,” says Heilprin. “His harmonies were amazing and all the parts he played were so different. Then the subject matter, the lyrics –– his writing was on an entirely different level. Storytelling at its finest.”

The needlessly humble Blue-eyed Son also credits alt-rock artists such as Wilco, Grandaddy or Flaming Lips for their quirky ways of making a song sound familiar yet strikingly out of the ordinary.

An idiosyncratic charm characterized Blue-eyed Son’s 2004 debut West of Lincoln on Eenie Meenie. Recorded with drummer Scott McPherson (M. Ward, Elliott Smith, She and Him), and helmed by producer Koool G Murder (Eels, Donavan Frankenreiter), with engineering and production on one song by Doug Boehm (The Vines, Elliott Smith), Lincoln is a sterling batch of alt-Top 10 hits that smeared the lines between whisper-sung melancholia à la Elliott Smith and hard-edged poppy fare. The album –– a few of whose tracks were licensed for TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy and Weeds –– was an object lesson in how to take the pop template and throw genuine personality into it, with ambitiously crafted songs that were undeniably catchy but swam below the shimmering surface in decidedly head-turning ways.
Following the release of West of Lincoln, Blue-eyed Son toured Australia, performed at KCRW’s Next Up at Santa Monica Pier, at an Ocean Conservancy event in Alaska and at the Summer Sonic fest in Japan. Then he took some time off from the music biz to work as a film editor and to further develop his songwriting skills –– and to do a little surfing, of course.

But now our prodigal boy has returned with a new EP called Shadows on the Son. Produced by Australian singer-songwriter Matt Ellis and engineered by Ronan Murphy (King Crimson, Terry Bozzio, Nels Cline), Shadows on the Son boasts five bar-raising new ways to soar with a song, including the loping strut of “All Went Black,” whose trumpet and chimes shine luminous rays onto a New Orleans-like carnival of sound. The quickstepping “Good Men Die Like Dogs” (“I remember the day John Lennon died”) shuffles on with countrified banjos and curly-cueing electric guitars. The anthemic “We’re Fighting a War” is a cinematic melting pot of epic string swells, marching drums and soaring dramatic arc. The EP features a superb cast of players including Goldenboy multi-instrumentalist Shon Sullivan, trumpet man Danny Levin (Regina Spektor, Snoop Dogg) and banjo master Willie Watson (Old Crow Medicine Show, Watkins Family Hour).

The sun shines warm on the deep blue sea…and all you have to do is listen. Says Blue-eyed Son, “Surfing and music have ways of transporting our minds and bodies to incredible new worlds, places that are both scary and intimidating yet filled with the most profoundly ridiculous beauty you will ever experience. If my songs express a small part of that feeling, then I’m happy.”

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a natural, and any lover of music can see that when performing, he is doing what he was born to do.

This young singer-songwriter was brought up in a musical family with constant exposure to artists and performers from the last six decades. These artists have influenced a songwriting style, a mix of raw rock and winding lyrical melodies, which continues to evolve within him through the years.

Touring and performing through countless venues on the East Coast, Campbell put his nose to the grindstone and built a fast and steady reputation and faithful following, selling out venues in New York and Pennsylvania on a regular basis.

A Philadelphia native, Campbell moved to San Francisco in 2004 specifically for the Rock scene he had heard was developing.

It was here that, in addition to his solo efforts, Campbell started writing, recording and performing as front man for the San Francisco-based rock band Pine & Battery (sonicbids.com/pineandbattery), which garners the newest editions to his catalogue of original music. Pine & Battery's 2006 self-titled release, and single ''Southern", can be heard in regular rotation on both AAA's KFOG and KQED radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pine & Battery is currently a featured local artist on KFOG and has been for almost a year.

Though the band is currently writing and recording new music for a 2009 release, Campbell continues to explore his acoustic rock roots in San Francisco and beyond: "This town is full of so much culture and rock n' roll is the center of it."

Rock n' Roll may very well be the center of San Francisco, but it is also in the center of Jeff Campbell and he would love to prove it to you.

$9.00 - $12.00

Tickets

Advanced Tickets are available online until 5pm on the day of the show and a reserve of tickets are generally available at the door that night, unless posted on the Starry Plough website, Facebook and Twitter pages as sold out. http://www.starryploughpub.com

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Jeff Campbell, Freedy Johnston and Blue-Eyed Son

Friday, May 24 · Doors 8:00 PM / Show 9:00 PM at Starry Plough