2008 American Idol finalists Michael Johns and Brooke White have embarked on a brief club tour together, sharing the same backing band. I was able to catch their show at Seattle's Chop Suey. I also spent some time with each artist on the tour bus prior to the show. The pair are currently touring eleven west coast U.S. cities, and were on their sixth show when I caught up with them. Their tour bus had definitely become a home away from home. Every bunk was assigned to their band-mates, tour manager, and even Johns’ dog, David Puddy (who excitedly jumped on my lap as soon as I sat down).
Both Johns (who finished in 7th place on American Idol) and White (who reached 5th place) have released independent albums earlier this year. While chart success has been fairly modest, both albums were well received by critics. Johns' Hold Back My Heart displays his skills as a soul singer, especially on the sultry ballads.
White's High Hopes & Heartbreak places her squarely in the mold of singer/songwriters like Carly Simon and Sheryl Crow. Both explained that they chose to go the independent route in order to maintain greater artistic control over their music. White told me she had her own songs and ideas to develop, wanting to retain her own vision for the album. They even worked with the same producer, Dave Cobb. Cobb had worked with Johns in the past, even before his stint on Idol.
The team up was Johns' idea, who considers White his favorite of the female contestants he competed against in Idol's seventh season. White admitted the audiences have been somewhat small, but always enthusiastic. Chop Suey was exactly the kind of club she enjoys playing, as the close quarters allow for much greater intimacy with the audience. Seeming to hold true to the pattern established in the six dates they had already played prior to Seattle, the club was far from packed but those in attendance appeared thoroughly entertained. Johns agreed that performing in this environment for his dedicated fans was want he values most.
Brooke White performed first, bringing all the natural charm that made her such a favorite on Idol. She had a premium cupcake with her, which she promised was untouched by bare hands, to bestow upon the most enthusiastic audience member. Seated at her keyboard for most of her set, she displayed great passion for her material. As she discussed with me prior to the show, she planned to include a particularly personal track from her album, "Smile," for the first time on this tour. The song conveys the heartache of remembering a lost loved one. Her nervousness before performing it was genuine, and her emotion during the song was palpable. With her voice breaking near the end, she completely convinced the audience that she meant every word. "Don't judge a song by its title," she implored at the song's conclusion.
Further emphasizing her connection with Michael Johns, she performed a sprightly rendition of a song they co-wrote together, "Little Bird." Before the show, White talked with great excitement about collaborating on the song with Johns, adding that many fans have told her the song sneaks up on them as a favorite after repeated listens.
In an acknowledgment of her time on Idol, her set closed with a strong reading of The Beatles' "Let It Be," a song that helped cement her fan base early on when she performed it on the show. The audience wasn't quite ready to let her leave the stage, and she granted a request for Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon." Backing herself up with some deft keyboard playing, the cover proved a highlight of her set. At the end, she made good and awarded a young lady the cupcake that had been sitting on stage during her entire performance.
Michael Johns amped up the energy level with a very charismatic performance. Mostly running through songs on his album, Johns proved to be an even more dynamic performer than he exhibited on Idol. One highlight was his take on Barry Gibb's "To Love Somebody." Speaking about the song before the show, Johns explained that the song was not originally conceived as a Bee Gees tune, but was intended for the late soul legend Otis Redding. Redding died before having a chance to record it. Johns wanted to try and evoke that Atlantic soul vibe in his album version. He had an opportunity to play his version for Gibb personally, but declined out of nervousness. He was pleased to be informed later on that Gibb loved his version.
Before the show, Johns explained he was never able to display his soul side as much as he would have liked on Idol. For his album he wanted a stripped down sound, and recorded the songs "live in the studio." He said they would record four or five takes until they got the sound they wanted. “That meant any mistakes stayed in,” according to Johns. That raw and honest aesthetic is something he retains for his live performances.
Also including a nod to his run on Idol, Johns grabbed his acoustic guitar for a Beatles cover of his own, "Across the Universe." As he sang and played, harsh feedback kept marring the song. In a moment of pure spontaneity he stopped halfway through, asking what the problem was. After being told it was his guitar, he joked that "too much beautiful music must be coming out of it," adding that he didn't want to ruin a Lennon/McCartney classic. Stepping out in front of the microphone, he unplugged his guitar and delivered a truly solo acoustic performance. It was a cool experience to hear just his voice and guitar with no amplification. The audience watched and listened in rapt silence until the song's end, at which point they awarded Johns his most boisterous ovation of the evening.
Further illustrating the intimacy and warmth of the show, Brooke White wandered out into the crowd during Johns' set, mingling with audience members and cheering Johns on. He called her up to the stage for the final song of the night, "Life Is Okay," a duet the pair recorded for a documentary about snowboarder Shaun White. Johns' wrote and recorded the soundtrack for the documentary, Don't Look Down: The Height Of Competition, which is available as an album by the same name. "Life Is Okay," as Johns explained before the show, has developed quite a following. According to Johns the song has managed some 30,000 iTunes downloads without the benefit of promotion or airplay. It's a great song that perfectly suits both singers. Their friendship and mutual artistic respect was visible as they sang together to conclude the show.
Singer/songwriter Benton Paul opened for White and Johns, as he has been since the tour began. He ably backed himself up on acoustic guitar, with minimal accompaniment from a keyboardist. He performed original songs from his album Grey and also delighted the audience with a cover of Coldplay's "Yellow." Brooke White sung Paul's praises before the show, joking that next year she and Michael Johns will be opening for him.
White and Johns are hoping to tour the eastern U.S. soon. They will be taking some time off while Johns takes part in the ten city David Foster and Friends tour.