September 14, 1999
Leo Johnson (Metro Blue Records),
I hate convention. Unless of course, it's the annual "Girls and Leather" convention. But musically speaking, I savor the artist that comes along with his or her own style and is relaxed enough to not only explore but come though the gate and board Leo Johnson's Fingertip Ship.
Johnson started playing the guitar at age nine with his only formal training coming from a roughneck that "drank beer, played Monkee records and said [he] played too fast." Johnson suffered no damage from the Monkee records (I wasn't as lucky growing up, thanks to my mother) and has developed an acoustic twelve string style so unique that it defies classification. He slaps his guitar like a bongo, plucks strings like a harpist, a banjo player and a flamenco guitarist. Call it "classical jazzriffing."
The appeal is the explosive quality of Johnson's playing. He plays the twelve string with a vengeance and power usually associated with Steve Vai or Jimi Hendrix. His composition is idiosyncratic and potent. With the speed of a classical artist, the explorative qualities of a jazz musician and no effects or technical gadgetry, he captures the listener through frenzied strumming. "The Filing Song" is a multi-transitional piece that moves along amorphously. "Heart of the Beast" is a diverse mix of smooth integration and jagged probing. One of my favorite tracks is "Get Funked," a rippling pulse of finger work so fast you'd swear you could smell the fretboard smoking.
The trip on Fingertip Ship isn't for the faint of heart. Johnson's style takes a little kicking back and a pair of open ears. Some may find his style too peculiar to thoroughly enjoy. I find his approach fascinating and incredibly independent. Playing as fleet as he does on the twelve string, his sound is even and full in an arena that is often dominated by artists who give into structure rather than impassioned innovation.
-- by Jason Ladner