Along with The Artist/The Riddle, this is an overlooked Jesus movement recording.
Artist: Mike Johnson and friends
Label: Born Twice Records (www.retroactiverecords.net)
Length: 10 tracks/36:10 minutes
For those interested in music with roots in the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mike Johnson’s Velvet Prince and The Artist/The Riddle have been remastered and released by Retroactive Records.
I wish that contemporary Christian music (CCM), the industry that grew up around the music of the movement, had followed some of the highlights found here. CCM is by definition message-driven but has been lacking at times in the raw inventiveness of the early Jesus music. It has suffered from a narrow focus and being overproduced and homogenized. That pristine quality is one of the benefits of an old recording like the Velvet Prince.
It’s raw, a little ragged, but earnest in exhibiting a broad array of styles and subject matter. It also has an underlying sophistication that reflects Johnson’s background with heralded groups like the Mike Bloomfield Blues band, Electric Flag and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. One standout track where you can hear that influence is the Dylanesque blues-rock of “On to L. A.”
On the lighter side is “Your Health Food won’t Get You into Heaven.” It’s not just the comical words; what makes this funny is an old-timey country style combined with most-important-song-in-the-world singing. I enjoy natural food as much as anyone, but I appreciate the hilarious reminder that “yogurt ain’t got no savin’ power.”
“Something’s Goin’ On” is a satirical “the end is coming” rag, complete with kazoo. For those who might remember him, it is reminiscent of Country Joe McDonald.
On the more somber side is the mournful “Standin’ at the Station,” perfectly suited to the feeling of being abandoned. The sparse, gentle instrumentation make this hauntingly beautiful.
The title track is a hard-rocking allegory that closes with wild feedback. Johnson also employs this literary device effectively on The Artist/The Riddle. If allegory and humor are scarce and a lost art in music today, it is a shame since both are powerful tools. With all the heaviness in the world, the need for humor has never been greater. Allegory remains a creative way to convey meaning to those who might be turned-off by a more didactic approach.
“Would You Believe” is a signature song reworked here into light jazz from Johnson’s self-titled Exkursions recording. The Exkursions were an early group for Johnson. Their concerts featured mainstream music without any Christian witness until the end when they closed with one invitation-to-faith song, normally “Would You Believe.” Johnson then shared his testimony, and Anglican minister John Guest preached. Johnson believes that this “low-key” approach was the secret to their success in ministry.
Velvet Prince follows in that legacy. The Christian witness on most songs is less overt. The appeal is in the careful craftsmanship. It might hold more interest for those whose first attraction is the music. Along with The Artist/The Riddle, this is an overlooked early document of an artist creatively expressing his Christian convictions.