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Johnston, From the Heartland

There’s a subversive, alluring quality to the music of Freedy Johnston. His songs offer simple, perfect folk-rock melodies, but with lyrics of such melancholy that they hang in the air long after all the prettiness has faded.

On Saturday at McCabe’s, that sound was linked with heartland folk rock, mid-'60s lounge pop and big city rock ‘n’ roll, all embracing Johnston’s messages on the pain of memory and an otherwise imperfect world. On Saturday, the Kansas native sang of selling the family farm to feed his band, of various romantic disasters, and of a husband insisting on saying a final goodby to the wife he has murdered.

Johnston adopted a look of wincing earnestness during such moments, but was otherwise an amiable host, winking and joking between numbers. He led a quartet that moved smoothly from country-rock flourishes to a sparse, even psychedelic version of the old Glen Campbell hit “Wichita Lineman.”

For Johnston’s “Down in Love,” former Bangle Susanna Hoffs joined him for a tender duet in a vaguely country vein, and then returned during the encore for “To Sir With Love.” It was a fine, uplifting finish that had Johnston just as comfortable and effective on pop’s lighter side, in spite of the trouble he’s seen.

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* Johnston performs tonight at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. (310) 276-6168.


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