Having a moment
David Johnston is respected on the local music scene. Now he’s enjoying some wider attention thanks to Peter Wolf.
File this under good news — deserving but unsung artists can still catch a break. That moment just came for David Johnston, a longtime local singer-songwriter whose song “I Don’t Wanna Know’’ was just covered on Peter Wolf’s new album, “Midnight Souvenirs.’’ It has become the most heavily played rock track on the record, airing everywhere from Boston’s WZLX-FM (100.7) to Little Steven’s “Underground Garage’’ on satellite radio. It fairly pops out of the speakers.
“I admire Peter and look up to him,’’ says Johnston, 57. “To have him do my song is a dream. Every songwriter would want something like this, but because it’s Peter, it’s even more special.’’
Wolf, who also fronts Boston’s J. Geils Band, has frequently attended Johnston’s weekly Tuesday night residency at Bull McCabe’s in Somerville, where he fell in love with the tune. “A lot of people would say, Hey, that sounds like a Geils song,’’ Wolf says. “And one day I jumped up and joined David on it.’’ The song took on a more vivid dimension when guitarist Duke Levine (who also has played with Johnston) pumped up the volume when it was recorded in one take.
“It was one of those serendipity things that came out well,’’ Wolf says with a laugh.
Besides being a great career boost, the song is a reminder of the respect that the ever-humble Johnston commands locally. He has attracted the best local musicians to play his gigs at Bull’s (he also headlines Toad in Cambridge tomorrow), luring such Boston all-stars as Levine and bassist Marty Ballou (who are both in Wolf’s touring band), guitarists Chris Rival (who is producing an all-acoustic disc for Johnston), Tim Gearan, Steve Sadler, and Steve Mayone, drummer John Sands (who tours with Aimee Mann) and bassist Richard Gates, who has played with Suzanne Vega. They mesh with Johnston’s loose but highly unique mix of swampy delta blues, subtle jazz, Dylan-steeped folk, and far-out psychedelia.
“David is absolutely himself. There’s no one else like him,’’ says Sands, who also works periodically with Johnston in One Thin Dime, another unsung local act.
A typical Tuesday night at Bull’s is packed with musicians. Recently, as Johnston cranked out his twangy tunes on a crisp, vintage-sounding National guitar, many of them shared their praise.
“I love his hooks and I love the Stones-y feel he has,’’ said harmonica ace Johnnie Mac.
“He’s very inspirational. He’s true to his music and it has paid off for him,’’ added Josh Buckley of the Gilded Splinters.
“He’s a good example to the next generation. He doesn’t compromise,’’ said veteran guitarist Noah Maltsberger.
Each week Johnston blasts into songs like “I Don’t Wanna Know’’ — which, he admits, is about a jaded love relationship — the gospel-sounding “To the Well,’’ and a raft of other originals that further jump across Memphis soul, reggae, and tripped-out rock akin to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.
The predominant motif, though, is the blues. “David has a great love for the tradition of the music,’’ says Wolf. When Johnston was a teenager in New Hampshire, he ignored mainstream radio in favor of listening to the likes of Billie Holiday, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters. He also cherishes the legacy of Club 47 in Harvard Square. He appreciates that legacy on the many days he busks in Harvard Square, though he notes, “I don’t want to stress it because a lot of people have negative opinions about street musicians.’’ (Go catch Johnston on the street and you’ll change your mind.)
The next step is to release a new album. Tentatively titled “Carnival of the Soul,’’ Johnston has been recording it at Chris Rival’s Middleville Studio in North Reading. It will mark Johnston’s first CD in eight years. “I’m a chronic procrastinator,’’ he says.
Above all, he’s just happy to fit into the local community. “I realize I’m not one of the stars of the scene,’’ he says, “but I feel blessed to be part of it.’’
A little serendipity never hurt, either.
Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@ gmail.com.