San Diego's soul diva
Reviewed May 2010
By Steph Johnson
To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing the artist's Web page.
With one of the biggest voices in all of San Diego County, Steph Johnson has defied easy comparisons to better-known, more established singers since she burst on the local scene last decade. But on her latest release, "Mysterious Feminine," Johnson seems to be channeling early Chaka Khan.
It's not that she's trying to sound like Khan it's more that Johnson's soulful delivery, jazz-infused technique, soaring range and utter feel for finding the groove laid down by her stellar backing band can't really be compared to anyone outside Khan's groundbreaking work with Rufus in the 1970s.
The band Johnson has assembled here is largely the same as she used four years ago on "Genessee Avenue" Seth Blumberg on guitar and Leo Dombecki on keyboards return, while Kevin Cooper on bass and Jesse Charnow on drums round out the combo. It is largely the final incarnation of Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm and say what you want about the man's many documented issues, but he knew how to put together a groove and build a band to sustain it.
Still, neither Johnson's powerhouse vocals nor her world-class backing band would be worth mentioning if they didn't have some solid material to work with. Johnson and co-writers Blumberg, Dombecki and have crafted 11 solid R&B / funk cuts with pleasing melodies, a nice soul-jazz vibe and enough dance-ready rhythms to keep any club dee-jay happy.
The only mar on any of this is the packaging of Johnson as a singer-songwriter, adorning the cover with photos of her holding an electric guitar. Yes, she writes or co-writes her own material, and yes, she's a singer who also plays guitar in solo outings. And she often plays at local acoustic and folk shows.
But nobody's going to confuse Steph Johnson with Joan Baez. This is a soul album through and through. Far more than on "Genessee Avenue," which veered more toward an after-hours, Rickie Lee Jones vibe, here Johnson embraces her inner soul diva.
As "Mysterious Feminine" illustrates, Johnson has a larger-than-life presence that needs the kind of backing only a large and polished R&B band can provide. Outside of Lady Dottie and Jeannie Cheatham, San Diego's never had a singer with the kind of soul Johnson possesses.
Here's hoping she stops fighting whatever urges keep her from fully, completely and permanently accepting her calling as the soul singer she most clearly is.
Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif., and was a contributor to the "Grove Press Guide to Blues on CD" (1993) and "The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Blues" (2005).