By Greg Waagner
Nominated by the LGBT Academy of Recording Arts for four 2010 OUTMusic Awards, including song and artist of the year (and winner for Best Folk/Country Song of the Year for the anthemic “Stand for Something”), Justin began his career as a Mormon contemporary singer/songwriter, garnering plenty of local praise as well as being a featured performer at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. After coming out – and then enduring two years of the Mormon church’s conversion therapy – Justin wrote a self-excommunication letter and broke ties with his Mormon past, which is pretty much the history that inspired his award-winning song.
This reviewer is of a generation which remembers a time when performers were rarely out and almost never sang songs that were overtly about any gay experience. This is happily no longer the case, but let’s not rush to apply labels. While it’s cool for the LGBT community to embrace someone with the descriptor of “gay” singer/songwriter, that’s potentially limiting for an artist whose music clearly has appeal not only to his gay brothers and sisters, but to all music-lovers and fans of the human experience.
So, what about Justin? His show was just terrific, with music and memoir woven together effortlessly. While already a fan of his music, I’ll admit wondering beforehand what introducing memoir about his experiences of growing up Mormon and being put through ex-gay therapy would do to the evening. After all, it seems not to be the most uplifting of tales. Justin’s stories of surviving the experience most certainly are uplifting, however, and through the prism of his bright spirit are both rendered both fascinating and entertaining.
As Justin talks, it is clear it is that spirit (and the support of a few strong and intelligent women in his family) that helped him become this sincere, friendly and happy guy on the other side of that journey. He admits having been the Boy Scout suspicious New Yorkers accused him of being when – “just off the boat from Utah” – he would hold doors and say “hello” to people and also to being caught off guard by the fact that “pot cookies” weren’t named for being a stovetop creation.
Such innocence might lead you to think Justin wouldn’t be much of a rocker, but he’ll prove you wrong from the first notes of tunes like "My Great Escape" and "Nothing This Real" (both about escaping the gravitational pull of Salt Lake City’s Mormons to explore the rest of the world). This guy can bring it, his voice ringing through the room and bringing to life his story-driven lyrics, whether he’s rocking out or letting his voice soar, ballad-style.
Although happy and partnered now (Sorry boys, Facebook says!), Justin has penned his share of break-up songs. They’re a musical staple, after all, and isn’t it always pain that inspires creation? "State of Loneliness" came of a relationship thwarted by another’s struggles with substance abuse and is full of the pain and frustrated heartache born of that struggle (“…I’ll tell you how I feel and never live it down…” ). After the show, Justin worried to us about whether it was a moment that brought the audience down, but that’s not the case at all, as he’s taken that painful situation and turned it into something beautiful – a song that perhaps can bring new light for others who’ve been in similar situations.
"It Is What It Is" is a different kind of break-up song, though: an empowering riff about cutting one’s losses and saying so long to a self-absorbed hot mess. Utley says it’s the fiddle in the studio recording of this one that got him the Country-Western label, and after it’s release, he found himself shopping for boots and flannel to fit the profile when he was to perform at Utah Pride. There’s also a country sound to "Guided Back to You," which is sort of a break-up song, but one with hope that - in this case - the break-up is only temporary ( “…just check your feet’s direction on this map that’s made for two, and if I’m ever lucky, I’ll be guided back to you…”).
"Goodbye Goodbye" is another one that falls into the category of Empowering Break-Up Song, but this one carries a slightly different weight, since it comes from an earlier time in Justin’s story. This one, he tells us, is about a girl he dated as part of his ex-gay therapy homework assignment. It seemed to be going well, but when he found out on Christmas that he was just one of a number of guys she was dating, he learned a lesson about “not making someone a priority who considers us only an option.”
For the show, Justin alternated back and forth between performing solo on stage, with just a guitar, or with the addition of pre-recorded band tracks behind him for a fuller sound (One imagines how much fun it would be to hear Justin perform with a live band in a stadium setting, perhaps at one of the Pride events he’s becoming so popular for.) But then Justin crossed over to the piano for a few numbers, wowing us with a fresh and wonderful arrangement of a piano/vocal cover of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," which couldn’t have sounded less like the Tears for Fears original.
Then, as if to answer the desire for other backing musicians, Justin welcomed his bassist friend, Ricardo Rodriguez, to the stage for a performance of Utley’s latest single, "Moment For Me" and then – far too quickly – the evening was coming to a close with Justin’s award-winning "Stand For Something," bringing the audience to their feet.
During the course of the evening, Justin’s vocal range and song constructions carried for this reviewer echoes of Jonathan Larsen and "Rent" (Justin would be a great Roger, IMHO). After the show, I mentioned this and pointed out how his songs all come from such interesting stories and experiences and asked if he’d ever considered creating a musical to showcase those songs. He hadn’t, as it turns out, but was gracious enough to respond like it was the best idea ever, even if he didn’t agree.
So, pay attention, music and theatre fans. It’s true Broadway may already have "The Book of Mormon," but The Book of Justin is just a few chapters in and anything’s possible. Keep your eyes peeled for performance notices in your area (and find him on Facebook), so you don’t miss an opportunity to hear this terrific artist when he comes to your town.
A note to the venue: The Crown and Anchor hosts a heavy schedule of programs and presentations during the Summer season. We’d surely be disappointed if they didn’t brighten our summer nights with a glittering array that includes Tawny Heatherton, Matt Alber, Miss Richfield, Dina Martina and so many others. But that heavy schedule may be having an unfortunate side-effect. As Justin was introducing his last number, the stage manager’s voice was heard over the sound system of the caberet, encouraging him to wrap things up, as the next show’s audience was que-ed up outside waiting to enter. And as our eager applause faded after that song, we were quickly reminded by that same voice to find our way to the exit to clear the way for the next show.
Sure, everyone understands that other shows are going on and it’s a busy time of year, but this unprofessional bum’s rush of both artist and audience left this reviewer feeling like this was less of a cultural event and more an amusement park ride, which is not only unfair to the performer, but seems like exactly the wrong impression to leave with an audience after a $25 cover charge and the price of drinks.