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Baby Grant Johnson (Wednesday, February 9th, 2005, Grumpy’s Bar N.E., Minneapolis)
Baby Grant Johnson in an undated publicity photo

By Cyn Collins

I walked into Grumpy’s NE for the first time (I’m embarrassed to say) last Wednesday and immediately felt cozy from the gregarious environs and invigorated by the percussive rhythms of Baby Grant Johnson. I was well aware that many of the best acoustic performers in town were playing downtown at First Avenue for Pastor Paul’s Acoustic Garage Sale, but I was looking for something a little more intimate on this particular night and decided to go listen to Baby Grant and his guest Spider John Koerner.

The first Baby Grant tune I heard after walking in was “Making Time,” a song I distinctly remember hearing songwriter Rich Mattson, a long-time friend of Johnson’s, perform solo. I thus mistook it to be one of Mattson’s songs when it was actually written by Johnson. Incidentally, while Mattson and Johnson each perform solo, and each has a rock band, they also occasionally play together when Johnson gets on stage with Mattson’s band Ol’ Yeller or Sunday night’s “Old Stage” at the Turf.

Johnson brought aDelta blues energy to the songs he performed, at times playing a 6-string, at others, a 12-string guitar. His foot-stomping rhythm was reminiscent of Spider John Koerner, a musician who Johnson has known since childhood.

He tore into “Whiskey Headed Woman” a rebel-rouser of a tune, his voice emotively raspy and dry, and then went into the more melancholy “Last Fix-it Man,” an ode to the dying art of knowing how to fix things mechanically. Johnson then did a rousing cowboy song, complete with yodeling, called “Cowboy on the Western Plains.” Johnson uses his scratchy voice and “whomp-bom’ rhythms in all the right places. Inspired by Delta Blues artists such as Son House, Sleepy John Estes, and Charlie Patton, Johnson covered “Piccolo Rag” by Blind Boy Fuller.”

Unfortunately, I’d missed covers of “Titanic” by Leadbelly, “Stomp Down Rider”, by Blind Willie McTell, and “Too Late Brother” by Little Walter, Muddy Waters’ harp player. Johnson’s harp playing is inspired by Tony Glover who was inspired in turn by Little Walter and Sonny Terry. His audience was enrapt during songs (except for occasional irrepressible whoops) and roudy applause at the songs’ end. Johnson informed the Grumpy’s crowd that his last song would be a mellow one, to which friend and bandmate Mike Nicolai hollered out, “More rags!” Ignoring Nicolai’s request, Johnson treated us to “That Old Time Feeling” by Guy Clark, a nice song to end his show on.

I was excited to hear Johnson solo. He hosts the show every Wednesday at Grumpy’s from 8 – 10 pm, playing the first hour himself, and the second hour showcasing guests like Slim Dunlap, Charlie Parr, Rich Mattson, of course Spider John Koerner tonight. You can also catch Baby Grant Johnson playing with his Johnny Thunders-inspired rock band creatively called, “The Baby Grant Johnson Band.” In the BGJB Tony Zaccardi of Kruddler plays bass, Mike Nicolai plays guitar, Ben Hayter plays drums. The band’s next show will be at the Turf Club on Saturday, February 26.

Cyn Collins is