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The uniquely psychedelic Ripley Johnson

This talented musician has three full-fledged bands, each channelling psychedelia in its own distinct fashion

Wooden Shjips’ Ripley Johnson on stage at Loppen, Copenhagen, in March 2019. (Alamy)

Ripley Johnson is an unusual musician. Best known as the founder, frontman and guitarist of the quirkily named band Wooden Shjips, which references a Crosby, Stills & Nash song from 1969, Johnson (birth-name Erik) actually has two more full-fledged bands. With his wife, Sanae Yamada, he has Moon Duo, which infuses electronic soundscapes with fuzzy, often distorted guitar riffs, yet is peppy enough to be danceable music. And then he has his solo project, Rose City Band, whose name is a hat-tip to Johnson’s home town of Portland, Oregon.

What makes Rose City Band remarkable is that for the most part Johnson not only composes the songs but also plays all the instruments, and sings. Wooden Shjips may be his best-known project but Rose City Band is unique. If you are a fan of Grateful Dead-style jamming, the band will quickly find its way on to your list of favourites.

Make no mistake, though. It doesn’t clone the Dead’s sound, it seems to have found a groove that lies somewhere between the iconic jam band’s more avant-garde improvisations and its laid-back, country-style psychedelia.

Over the past two years, Rose City Band has come out with two albums—2019’s self-titled one, and 2020’s Summerlong. Both are guitar-led psychedelic albums with lengthy noodling riffs, trippy organ lines, and an overall environment that can best be described as a long and happy trip.

In fact, though the 40-something’s three projects may be quite different from each other, psychedelia remains a common feature.

In Moon Duo, Johnson and Yamada wrap psychedelia with a veneer of pop. The sound is more sparkling and uptempo, and the riffs (Johnson’s guitar and Yamada’s keyboards) more accessible and less esoteric. Mazes, the duo’s album from 2011, is the best example of how the band channels psychedelia differently from the way Wooden Shjips or Rose City are likely to.

Shjips offer psychedelia in a garage-y kind of format: more fuzzy noise and drones, with elements of yesteryear prog rock thrown in. On their six albums, psychedelic sounds lie on top of electronic sound textures and droning prog-rock style aural landscapes.

In V., released in 2018, around the time of massive political changes in the US, the Shjips pursue a protest theme in their own gently restrained way, offering an opportunity to rise above all the turmoil in the early part of Donald Trump’s presidency.

When he founded the band, Johnson got together a bunch of people who had never been real musicians in the hope that they would bring some baggage-less innovativeness to the sound. They did. The band’s current lineup comprises Dusty Jermier (horns and bass), Omar Ahsanuddin (drums), Johnson (guitars and vocals) and Nash Whalen (keyboards).

All the Shjips albums can delight but 2011’s West is outstanding. Johnson has said in interviews that one of his greatest influences while growing up was the San Francisco-style psychedelic music of the 1960s. Bands like the Dead, of course, but also lesser-known ones such as Quicksilver Messenger Service (whose guitarist, John Cipollina, was a legend in his time) were staples on his list as he and friends experimented with weed and psychedelic substances. West has a sort of “cowboy folk music meets space rock” kind of feel, showcasing the Shjips’ sound perfectly.

It is, in fact, the way in which every Johnson project has its own identity that makes it stand apart. Rose City Band, for instance, can transport the listener to the late Neal Casal’s band Circles Around the Sun, which played long, improvised instrumental tracks that can take you on seemingly never-ending mind trips. But unlike other followers of the Dead, Johnson has tried to capture their cosmic-sounding, gentler aspects. Rose City Band’s music can waft softly over you, never intruding but always present. Intricate guitar riffs blend smoothly with keyboard and bass lines and the vocals can seem extremely soothing.

In Summerlong, Johnson dives into alt or indie country music territory—but not in the way a Wilco would. Mandolins and steel guitars make an appearance, and the vocals are more pronounced. The album can evoke memories of the early Dead albums, such as Workingman’s Dead, with its country blues-style songs, yet there is an originality to it. For many who have missed the Dead since lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Rose City Band can bring back great memories of a certain early era of that band, the added bonus being Rose City’s more original way of paying tribute.

To many, Ripley Johnson (a friend gave him that first name when they were growing up) could seem like a musician from the 1960s’ flower-power era, with his long flowing beard and psychedelic music. But Johnson is no throwback relic. Each of his projects is psychedelic music in a different avatar, and as a listener, transitioning between Wooden Shjips, Rose City Band and Moon Duo can be a fascinating trip.

The Lounge list of 5 tracks to bookend your week

1. Real Long Gone by Rose City Band from Summerlong

2. Wide Roll by Rose City Band from Rose City Band

3. Staring At The Sun by Wooden Shjips from V.

4. Back To Land by Wooden Shjips from Back To Land

5. Fallout by Moon Duo from Mazes


First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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