David Johansen was rightly introduced as “the world’s foremost ethnomusicologist” at his opening set of the double-billed David Bromberg/David Johansen show Friday night at Town Hall, a pairing, incidentally, that came out of their performances last year at the memorial at the Cutting Room for Stanley Snadowsky, co-owner of The Bottom Line, at which the two Davids were beloved regulars.
Sure enough, in his 45-minute set with his longtime, incredibly versatile guitar accompanist Brian Koonin, Johansen covered as many stylistic bases as time would allow, starting with a raucous version of his debut solo album hit “Funky But Chic”—which he later covered in the second incarnation of his New York Dolls (on the 2011 Dancing Backward in High Heels album) and including a lovely bossa nova take of his second solo album’s Four Tops-sounding “Melody,” a pristine acoustic guitar interpretation of his first solo album’s centerpiece “Frenchette” and folk-blues songs from his Henry Smiths band period.
But the set’s centerpiece had to be the one song Johansen has yet to record.
“I’ve been holding on to it,” he deadpanned. “Brian has connections in the Streisand camp, and it should be recorded by someone like that. I’m waiting for Tom Jones, or when The Boss gets writer’s block and is going through a fallow period.”
Not to discount any of them, but no one surpasses Johansen as a singer—or songwriter. Co-written with Koonin, the tentatively titled “Wandering Spirit Prayer” is a contemplative song about life and death. He sang it at the Snadowsky memorial, and at Town Hall—and everywhere else I’ve heard him do it—everyone present held their breath so as not to miss a word, let alone Johansen’s extraordinarily detailed vocal performance.
He’s the foremost ethnomusicologist, all right, and an artist without peer. The audience stood reverently after his traditional closer, “Heart of Gold.”
Here’s “Wandering Spirit Prayer”: