From a one musician to another: “You don’t sound half bad.”
Not half bad very quickly turned into taking a spot two steps ahead of Tony Bennet and one step down from Willie Nelson when Shaun Johnson found out his band’s “Capitol” record rounded out Billboard’s Top 5 this July.
Johnson and his Big Band Experience will be at the Westonka Performing Arts Center Oct. 5, but Johnson has been here before: He’s also the lead singer for Tonic Sol-fa, an Emmy award-winning a capella quartet that formed in central Minnesota 20 years ago and that performed at the PAC in February.
“We just had a fabulous experience with them, but we wanted to bring something different to the community of Mound,” said Kelly Newell, coordinator for the Westonka PAC. “He’s high energy and super fun and I’m excited to have him back. It’s going to be a blast!”
Johnson, whose website tells us he “indelibly stamps vocal jazz and swing with a contemporary punch,” lands somewhere on the near side of jazz and the far side of bluesy rock.
“It won’t be Michael Buble, though I love him, or Frank Sinatra, though I think he’s amazing,” said Johnson, who described his band’s sound as “raw,” as less produced and with fewer strings than Buble, veering from Brian Sexton’s rockabilly take and lacking the “gangster movie star style” of Sinatra. “Ours is a stripped-down band.”
Stripped down but with an oeuvre that runs the gamut: Johnson doesn’t limit himself to a single genre, and he’s taken on classic numbers like Leonard Cohen’s much-covered “Hallelujah,” Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World” and J.D. McPherson’s “North Side Gal,” a song he injects with extra swagger and a bit of cheek that comes through in his voice and the brass alike. And then there’s that time when he and the band dipped the Ramones in jazz and came out with a punchy version of the Spider Man theme.
The band started as a side job to Tonic Sol-fa that played Christmas charity concerts, raising money for Susan G. Komen and Make A Wish, among others. That charity focus meant the band has always been an intentionally small group since its formation three or four years ago: fewer members on the payroll meant more money going to the charities.
“It’s probably the world’s smallest big band,” said Johnson of his eight-person group, which he described as a “microcosm” of the traditional big band.
“Instead of four trumpet players, I gotta find one guy who can make a big sound; for trombone, I gotta find one guy with a crazy style,” Johnson said of recruiting his bandmates. The trumpet player who said he wasn’t half bad has stuck with him since the start.
“We set up these shows not knowing how’d they go,” said Johnson of the band’s first year, recalling that pit of the stomach feeling that came with those first shows. “You’re in a smaller venue than you’re used to and it’s scary, you don’t know if anyone will come.” This from someone who had has sold more than 2 million records.
Johnson and the Big Band have since performed at top spots like the Orpheum and the Dakota Club, the only club Johnson said he and the band have played and the concert he also singled out as his favorite concert he’s given. The band has performed alongside professional orchestras, is embarking on its first national tour next year and is forever continuing to experiment – the band has a few shows lined up with the very group that stole this Iowa boy from pursuing law school 20 years ago: Tonic Sol-fa.
“For one half, as many instruments as you can fit on the stage and then the other half no instruments. It’s like the choir meets the band,” said Johnson. “I have to open for myself. That’s kind of weird!”
As the band’s performances have expanded (the Big Band Experience is no longer a side job but a second full-time job, said Johnson), so, too, has its repertoire. The past two years have seen the balance tip increasingly toward fewer covers and more original music, songs like “Sweet Time” and “Marching Soldiers,” two from his “Capitol” album, which Johnson said he’ll draw on for his concert here.
Tickets for the Oct. 5 show at the Westonka PAC, still available, are $25 each and are available online at westonkapac.com/tickets and in person at the Westonka Activities Center. Day of, unsold tickets can be purchased (cash only) at the Performing Arts Center starting at 6 p.m.