Deeper Than My Roots – The Davey Johnstone Band
Something completely different in relation to much of the PROGMATIC! music I tend to purchase the most and what we have here is a brand new album by Elton John’s longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone. I’ve always admired this guy’s guitar skills ever since he was with the band Magna Carta back in 1971 on their Songs From Wasties Orchard album. Although his stint with the band was very short-lived when the producer Gus Dudgeon cottoned on to the young Scottish man’s talent and Elton was struggling to get the self-titled track done from what was to be his 5th studio album (counting the Soundtrack album Friends) Madman Across the Water back in the same year.
It did not take long for Johnstone to sort that particular track out and he’s always been a quick thinker with his arrangement and writing skills he was soon hired and has been with Elton ever since. Although he was only hired as a session player for that album the fact that he brought a lot to the table was why he was made a full-time member by the time the next album Honky Château came which spurned the classic hit “Rocket Man“.
Over the many years he has been with Elton he has co-written many songs and has been his chief musical director with his arrangement skills. Johnstone is very much a string player and is not only a well-accomplished player of the guitar but also the mandolin and banjo. Both the mandolin and banjo were certainly well utilised on both the albums Madman Across the Water and Honky Château and many more.
I’ve always loved Elton’s earlier material and what I like a lot about the album Madman Across the Water is that there was never a single released from it when it came out and it is perhaps one of Elton’s least commercial albums he has ever written along with his 3rd album Tumbleweed Connection. I totally love his mandolin playing on “Holiday Inn” which was also used along with “Goodbye” later for the B-Side of “Rocket Man”.
In a recent interview with Johnstone, he spoke about his favourite times playing for Elton and they were very much when they became known as The Elton John Band. That all really started with the album Honky Château when they were a four-piece with Elton on keys, Davey on guitar and both Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. It continued right up until the album Rock of the Westies in 1976 and being as he is a family man and all his offspring are all budding musicians it was that period of his longtime career with Elton that inspired him to put his latest album under the name of The Davey Johnstone Band.
You could say that his new album Deeper Than My Roots is a family affair although he has called upon a couple of musicians to guest on the odd track or two, including his old bandmate Nigel Olsson and the American drummer Denny Seiwell who formed the band Wings with Paul McCartney many C-Moons ago. To help out with the lyrical side of things he called upon another old friend actor and poet Rick Otto.
Most of the inspiration for the songs came from the 60s and ’70s and you could say that Johnstone was going back to his hippie days, especially with the psychedelic album cover. I think he’s always considered himself a bit of a hippie with the coloured shirts he often wears on stage but before we go any further let’s take a look at the packaging and artwork.
Packaging & Artwork…
The CD comes in a gatefold Digipak and the good thing about the Digipak is that it is sturdier in relation to a Digisleeve or File and holds the CD firmly in place with its plastic tray and hub. I do however find the print on the back of the cover very small and if like myself you are getting on a bit you will need reading glasses to read it.
The 16-page booklet is also in very small print and is paper-thin though it is printed on glossy paper and comes with the usual liner notes and credits plus the lyrics. It does not contain any informative information but it does come with some good pictures that very much relate to the history of his musical career.
I purchased my copy from Amazon UK for £11.49 which I see as good value for money and it’s around its right price point. Overall it’s a very neat looking package and the artwork just might be on the bright coloured DAZZLING! side of things but looks quite cool. You certainly would not have any trouble finding it either stored on the shelf with your other CD’s.
The album covers concept and design were done by his daughter Juliet Johnstone and I have to say she has done a smashing job of it and I am sure Davey is very proud of her. You can see by the pictures from the booklet below I pieced together how she’s captured her father’s musical career.
The way, the photos have been placed on each page of the booklet along with the songs and lyrics. It puts me in mind how Ian Beck did the concept design for Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album and I think Juliet may very well of drawn some of her inspiration from that album.
The Album In Review…
Deeper Than My Roots by The Davey Johnstone Band was released on the Spirit Of Unicorn Music label distributed by Cherry Red Records on the 4th of February 2022. The album itself contains 12 tracks (counting the two bonus tracks) and has an overall playing time of 47 minutes, 28 seconds which is a very reasonable time slot for an album making it a lot easier to digest.
The biggest majority of the tracks on the album are songs with lyrics although it does have a couple of instrumental tracks that Johnstone had written a good few years back whilst other songs were written during the lockdown period that prevented live music from being played due to Covid. It was down to Elton John having to suspend his Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour which very much gave him the opportunity and time to work on new numbers and complete the album.
It must have took quite a while for the album to get released looking at the album cover and CD because it does have the year 2021 stamped on them both. Even though the album is tagged as The Davey Johnstone Band it could also be seen as his second solo album and it was almost 50 years ago back in 1973 that he released his first solo album entitled Smiling Face that was released on Elton’s own record label Rocket Records.
Judging by the photo on that album cover you can see that Johnstone has always liked to keep things in the family and the cover design for that album was done by his wife. I am pretty sure that the picture is of his oldest son Tam Johnstone though I could be mistaken.
Being on the road with Elton and working on many albums with him for the past 51 years has kept Johnstone very busy, too busy to find the time to work on his own solo albums which is why only a couple of albums from his solo career have surfaced over all those years.
However, during Elton’s Big Picture Tour back in 1997/8 he did find time to do a collaborative album with John Jorgenson who like Johnstone has played for many other artists including the likes of the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams Jr., Barbra Streisand, Luciano Pavarotti, Roy Orbison including Elton himself.
Crop Circles was released on Solid Air records back in 1999 and were part of the Groovemasters series. It’s very much an album of instrumental tracks that showcase the acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo taking in musical styles such as Bluegrass and Celtic folk music.
Getting back to the new album most of the material was recorded at Johnstone’s own home in California and at Kenrose studios by Charlie Johnstone and Major Wynne respectively. No commercial studios were used and most of the recording was done with the use of Pro Tools.
Most of the songs on the album are very much played by Johnstone with his family supporting him though as I mentioned earlier there are a good few additional musicians and singers who make an appearance on some of the tracks. The couple of instrumental tracks that were recorded much earlier are believed to be the last recordings bass player Bob Birch had played on before he passed away back in 2012.
Johnstone’s first encounter with Birch was back in 1989 at the end of one of Elton’s tours to which keyboardist Guy Babylon introduced him to him, and along with Babylon, Birch, Billy Trudel and Nigel Olsson they put the band Warpipes together and churned out a one-off album entitled Holes In The Heavens.
The album was released in the US on Artful Balance Records in 1991 and later on Bridge Recordings here in the UK in 1996. It was through Johnstone that Birch got to play with Elton back in 1992 when Elton never had a bass player for The One tour. The couple of instrumental tracks on Deeper Than My Roots are dedicated to the memory of his life.
It’s not the first time Davey has done anything with his siblings and back in 2013, he performed with Tam (Vocals & Drums), Jesse (Bass) and Charlie (Keyboards) at the Elton John Expo in Los Vagas. This amateur video that somebody had filmed captures them performing Elton’s “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own” at the small venue which was in one of the suites of the building.
Actually, the film footage is quite good although the camera that captured it could not really handle the sound and it is badly distorted in various parts throughout. It does however show you how well his siblings have come on as musicians and no doubt he must be very proud of them.
Musicians & Credits…
Produced by Davey Johnstone. All Music & Lyrics Written by Davey Johnstone & Rick Otto except tracks 4 & 9 Written by Davey Johnstone, Jesse Johnstone & Tam Johnstone. Track 11 Written by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Track 12 Written by Davey Johnstone, Charlie Johnstone & Rick Otto. Recorded sometime during 2021 at Kenrose & Chel Johnstone Studios, California, USA. Recording & Mixing Engineers Major Wynne & Charlie Johnstone. Mastered by Howie Weinberg. Album Cover & Concept Design by Juliet Johnstone.
Davey Johnstone: Guitars – Bass – Mandolin – Sitar – Vocals – Synth.
Elliot Johnstone: Lead Vocals.
Charlie Johnstone: Keyboards & Vocals.
Jesse Johnstone: Drums.
Denny Seiwell: Drums (Tracks 1, 7 & 11)
Bob Birch: Bass (Tracks 4 & 9)
Tam Johnstone: Synth (Tracks 4 & 9)
Nigel Olsson: Drums (Track 5)
Major Wynne: Drums (Track 8)
Ben Babylon: Strings (Track 6)
Vanessa Bryan: Lead Vocals (Track 12)
Adam Chester: Additional Vocals (Tracks 8 & 12)
The Album Tracks In Review…
When listening to much of the material on Deeper Than My Roots I would say that the biggest influences are from The Beatles. He even chose to cover one of their songs and I would say the album is quite BEATLE-ESC! in places. Johnstone has always been a MASSIVE! fan of the band and I would say that most of the songs we have here hark back to the 60’s more so than the 70’s.
The album runs along the lines of rock/pop but don’t expect anything like “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” or “Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting” for example. It’s very much more of a tamer affair where he focuses more on the melodic structure and guitar tones unlike a guitarist album that is more on the flamboyant side of things to showcase the instrument like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai would do sort of thing.
To put it in a nutshell it’s more straightforward and not over the top and focuses on doing what is required for the song to work so without further adieu let’s now dive into the album and the couple of bonus tracks and take a closer look at it.
Track 1. Go Easy On My Heart.
The album gets off to a fine start with its opening track and it’s quite a catchy and easy-going pop song that does have a BEATLE-ESC! feel to it. I would even say the lyrical content harks back to when The Beatles first started out in the early 60’s with songs like “Love Me Do” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in that it’s a love song sort of thing. Although the relationship here seems to be breaking down sort of thing and has Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones might have sung back then “I used to love her but its all over now” 😊😊😊.
I even think Davey’s youngest son Elliot Johnstone sounds like John Lennon on this song and I have to say he does have a GREAT! voice. Even his father’s backing vocal harmonies also work very well and the vocal side of things does fit the musical side of things like a glove as you can see and hear in the video that was put out by the record company to promote the album.
You can see they went to town on the video and really have done a CRACKING! job of it. Like the video, the song is also very colourful and I personally think the song does have all the qualities to make a potential chart hit. Though the fact that many band members hardly get any recognition in relation to most singers who are in the limelight such as Elton for example, I don’t see the song actually making a dent in the charts so to speak which is a shame really.
This is one of three tracks on the album to feature the EX-Wings! drummer Denny Seiwell on drums who does a GREAT! job even in his ripe old age. Seiwell has had quite a successful career and has played the drums for the likes of Billy Joel and Liza Minnelli in the past and played on scores for films such as Waterworld, Grease II, and Vertical Limit. His drumming was also used in TV shows such as Happy Days and Knots Landing.
Besides vocal harmonies, Davey Johnstone plays acoustic, electric and bass guitars on the song and you can see he’s kept things nice and simple and utilised his guitars to give it the right textures, tones and colourful balance to everything. There is nothing over the top here except perhaps his shirts in the video 😊😊😊. Though all jokes aside you can see why the record company would put it out cause it does have that single potential and is one of the stronger songs on the album.
Track 2. One Look In Your Eyes.
This next song is also very BEATLE-ESC! and like most of the songs on the album more of a family affair featuring Elliot (lead vocals), Charlie (keyboards & backing vocals) Jesse (drums) and Davey (guitars, bass & backing vocals). The song itself is perhaps more keyboard-driven leaving Davey with only really the rhythm side of things to do on this one. It’s also the keyboard side of things, the mellotron in particular that gives it that Beatles sound that was found on songs such as “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” from around 1967. Like those songs it also builds up from a slow start into something with more of an upbeat to it.
Track 3. Meh Amour.
The same family quartet feature on this next song to which the title has a Spanish ring to it though given that it’s spelt “Meh” and not “Mi” it perhaps rings out to the Portuguese side of things. However, I am sure the translation of “my love” in English works out the same. The song itself has more of a Latin laid back ballad feel and approach and gives Davey a chance to utilise his acoustic guitars a bit more. He also adds some nice subtle lead on the electric to blend into it all nice too.
It’s quite different to the opening couple of tracks and perhaps something more along the lines of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour“ or something a bit more on the jazz side of things. I have to admit I had to check who was actually singing the song because it sounds like a woman is singing it and not Elliot 😊😊😊.
Track 4. Walt Dizney.
The first of two instrumental pieces was written a good while back whilst Bob Birch was still alive and it features him on bass guitar. The title was most likely inspired by it being more like Soundtrack music for TV and films sort of thing and sort of takes me back to Elton’s second double album Blue Moves from 1976. That was an album that also had a couple of instrumental tracks that run along the same lines of Soundtrack music “Your Starter For…” and “Theme From a Non-Existent TV Series” are a couple of prime examples.
This piece is not uptempo like those early Elton pieces and is much more laid back to which Davey is focusing on subtle lead lines and tones from his guitar. However, it does build up very well and gives him a chance to fly a bit at the end. Charlie and Jess are accompanying on the keyboards and drums respectively and his oldest son Tam contributes a bit of synth to the piece.
Track 5. Melting Snow.
This next song was inspired by a friend who knew he was dying of cancer and the lyrics very much reflect upon those circumstances which are once again very well put across sweetly by Elliot. The song also features Davey’s longtime friend Nigel Olsson on drums and regarding the lyrical content, Davey also felt it appropriate to throw in a bit of the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns with the words “Ae fond kiss” which was also turned into a song and has been covered by many artists over the years.
It’s very much an emotional sad heartfelt ballad of a song as you can hear and see for yourself with the very first promotional single release that was put out by the record label. Besides some lovely picking on the acoustic guitar Davey’s bass also works wonders along with Hammond from Charlie.
Track 6. You Lied To Me.
This next song harks back to the 60’s or even 50’s and is what you could call a rock n’ roll ballad of a song. The melody line played on the piano puts me in mind of “I Understand” by Freddie and The Dreamers and it also reminds me of some of the songs John Lennon was doing in the early 70’s. To be honest Davey’s lead guitar work on this does give it more of a 70’s feel and you could even think along the lines of what the likes of Showaddywaddy or even The Bay City Rollers to some extent were also doing in that decade.
The song is perhaps too heavily influenced by tons of artists that came out in the 50’s to the 70’s but nevertheless, they do a GRAND! job all the same and up till now this is perhaps the best lead solo Davey has played on the album. Besides the usual Johnstone CLAN! it also has some strings provided by Ben Babylon which were mostly likely played on the keyboard with the use of softsynth software.
Track 7. Deeper.
It’s back to the BEATLE-ESC! sounding numbers on the album and the album’s self-titled track digs deeper into the harmony side of things in that the vocal side of things is handled by a quintet. Singing along in unison with Elliot and Davey there is Nigel Olsson, John Mahon and Vanessa Bryan, of which the latter and female of the group does tend to get the most prominent part and you could say is perhaps the soul of this lot.
It’s the second song on the album to feature drummer Denny Seiwell and along with Davey, they handle the musical side of things. It’s quite a rocked up tune to which it is the harmonies that do give it that BEATLE-ESC! feel and I quite like how Vanessa’s voice gives it a nice soul gospel vibe with her GREAT! voice.
Track 8. Boxer In The Corner.
Another quite good ROCKY! number to which I dare say you could even associate that word with the title of the song being as it’s about a boxer. This song has more of a 70’s feel to it and apart from guitars, bass and synth it also is the only song on the album that Davey takes on the lead vocals himself and I have to say he does a very good job of it as well. It also features Major Wynne on the drums who engineered and mixed the biggest majority of the tracks on the album.
Helping out on the addtional vocal side of things is Elliot and Davey’s longtime friend and surrogate Adam Chester who he brings in when on tour with Elton rehearsing the songs for the set. One of the things Elton does not like doing when touring is rehearsing with the band so Chester is brought in because his voice sounds like Elton and is easier to work with the band at rehearsals.
Track 9. Black Scotland.
The second of the two instrumental tracks on the album and this one is also the longest track on the album and once again features the late Bob Birch whose bass really drives this one along with Jesse on the drums. It’s a piece that really motors its way along and the sort that would accompany you on the road. The title can be associated with black history and slavery although Davey got the title from a conversation with Little Richard who said to him after asking where he came from “man where you come from must be the black side of Scotland”.
Like the other instrumental piece, it was Tam who engineered it and once again contributed a bit of synth. Besides guitar Davey also throws in the sitar however, it is really Birch’s bass lines that go to town on this track and no doubt he is sadly missed.
Track 10. The Final Quarter.
From the longest to the shortest track on the album and once again this song also has a bit of a Lennon feel to it. It’s quite a subtle ballad of a song that features Davey on acoustic guitar accompanied by Elliot’s vocals only and the lyrical content is perhaps pertaining to not taking life for granted especially as far as breaking the rules are concerned. It winds up the main album very well as its closing track. Although the title may very well suggest, it’s not the end so to speak.
The album comes with a couple of bonus tracks to which I personally find a bit odd as to why they decided to call them bonus tracks in the first place. For example, it’s not as if this album came out a few years ago and this is a remastered reissue with which bonus tracks are commonly associated. In general bonus tracks are often made around the same time the album was being made and left off the album because they did not feel they sat in with the material that was written for the album at the time. They are also often used as B-Sides of single releases.
The first of the bonus tracks is a cover of The Beatles song “Here, There And Everywhere” and I can understand to a degree with it being a cover is why they used it as a bonus track. However, this was the very first song that Davey worked on with his youngest son Elliot and was the very thing that sparked off the reason for making an album with his siblings in the first place according to many of the interviews I have watched and listened to.
They do a fine job of the song, to be honest, and once again Denny Seiwell is the guy behind the drum kit. Though as with any cover I think the biggest majority are always going to prefer the original and covers are perhaps the hardest things to do any better than the original. I also think that being that most of the songs on the album are quite BEATLE-ESC! it’s not really out of place with the rest of the material on the album.
The second bonus track “All The Time In The World” was penned by Davey Johnstone, Charlie Johnstone and Rick Otto and is a very soulful meaningful song that features the GREAT! voice of Vanessa Bryan who really puts the soul and her soul into it. It is quite different to the other material on the album though I have to say this is a very well written song and not one that you would really use as a bonus track. It’s way better than that and one of the stronger tracks on the album.
This soulful song puts me in mind of somebody like Aretha Franklin and its musical structure was very much written around the piano to which I would credit Charlie with writing more or less the musical side of things we have here. You can hear it for yourself with the video that was made for it which Vanessa posted on her tube channel back in 2020.
It is, without doubt, one of the better-written songs on the album which I personally feel merits a lot more than being placed as a bonus track. It’s also not the type of song you would place on the B-Side of a single either and would easily sit more at home as the A-Side.
Summary & Conclusion…
To sum up my review of Deeper Than My Roots by The Davey Johnstone Band. It’s an album that is perhaps most influenced by The Beatles, and along with other influences they give the album quite a bit of variety. The material is very well written however the downside might very well be that the album does not really give you anything new, and in relation to today’s chart music and a lot of the younger listeners, I fail to see how it is really going to really appeal to the mass majority.
Like I mentioned earlier it’s not an album that showcases Davey’s true potential on the guitar and is like I said quite tame in that respect. It does, however, showcase the talent of his siblings and that may very well have been his intention with this particular album, he is also obviously a very proud father who is dead proud of his family and who would not be.
It would not surprise me if you hear a lot more from his youngest son Elliot Johnstone in the near future who really does have a GREAT! voice. It’s something Elton immediately spotted haven spoken to him to congratulate him after hearing the album. Elton has always been good at spotting new talent and helping them on the road to success so to speak.
In conclusion of my review, I would say there is no doubt the album is very well produced and most of the material upon it is very bright and easy-going like most pop music. It’s a very pleasant album to listen to and there is not really a bad track on the album. It is however perhaps too overinfluenced in places for its own good which really begs the question of who will it appeal to?
The answer to that is simply people like myself who are into Elton John’s music enough to note the GREAT! musicians he has had playing with him over all the years. When Davey Johnstone joined Elton back in the early 70’s he brought a lot to the table much of which I admire a lot. The biggest majority of Elton’s songs are not about flying lead guitar solos as you will hear on “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and are more about what is required to make the song work. Those are some of the attributes Davey brings to the table and are why he is very much Elton’s musical director.
In many respects, those are the same attributes Johnstone has applied to this new album and my personal highlights from the album are “Go Easy On My Heart“, “Melting Snow“, “Boxer In The Corner” and “All The Time In The World“.
Deeper In My Roots is not really an album that I would go running along to my friends to tell them about nor is it a GOTO! album amongst the many albums I have in my record collection. It does not really give you anything different to what you have already heard before. However, it contains a fine bunch of songs and is a very pleasant and colourful album to listen to. I certainly do not think I wasted my money on it either.
A Family Affair That Keeps Things In The Family…
The CD Tracklisting is as follows:
01. Go Easy On My Heart. 2:51.
02. One Look In Your Eyes. 3:53.
03. Meh Amour. 4:08.
04. Walt Dizney. 4:49.
05. Melting Snow. 3:52.
06. You Lied To Me. 3:23.
07. Deeper. 5:00.
08. Boxer In The Corner. 4:01.
09. Black Scotland. 5:46.
10. The Final Quarter. 2:14.
11. Here, There And Everywhere [#]. 2:20.
12. All The Time In The World [#]. 5:11.