Donnie Johnson, the latest contender in the crowded neosoul field, comes with a compelling back story and some big-name connections. He’s Marvin Gaye’s second cousin, and like Gaye he left the Hebrew Pentecostal religion (which he describes as “Jews for Jesus, but with a slap of the Holy Roller on top of it”) for the secular life; his reputation spread to New York thanks largely to the praise of fellow Atlantan India.Arie. The Colored Section (Giant Step), his recent debut, shows him to be a promising if still derivative writer–though the middle of the album is stuffed with workmanlike pledges of devotion, he’s not afraid to explore issues of race and identity. “Cloud 9,” a meditation on his gravity-defying ‘fro (“Happy to be nappy / I’m black and I’m proud / That I have been chosen to wear the conscious cloud nine”), is relatively lighthearted, but “Wildlife” lashes out at racist whites: “And you call me a savage, uncivilized / When it’s you who made lynching your way of life.” On “People Person” he rails against snap judgments, observing that even a drug dealer or a preacher has numerous complexities and contradictions within his personality. Donnie’s got a killer voice–he sticks primarily to an earthy midrange that recalls Donny Hathaway, but he can hit those high notes when he has to. There’s also a little bit of D’Angelo in the way he stacks his backing vocals into harmonic clusters. But the influence that dominates here is undoubtedly Stevie Wonder–the Dixieland-style “Big Black Buck” recalls “Ebony Eyes,” the opening of “Turn Around” echoes “Pastime Paradise,” and the general 70s vibe is heavily indebted to Innervisions. Sunday, December 29, 9 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Dosunmu.