"I like this rain, it's northern rain," Dean Johnson tells us, happily resting an arm on his guitar. "But it's making a mess of your pavements of gold." As an introduction to his songs, with their sweet sentiments encased in hard-edged reality, it would be hard to beat. But the cynicism is real, derived from a rage against the notion that disappointment and disillusion are romantic ideals for the aspiring bedsit poet.

When Johnson sings of bingo and the bomb, there's no irony intended. And he knows about faded dreams of glory. Johnson's latest album, Loser Friendly, has been well received, but the five albums before it sunk without trace. And then there was the song written with Wet Wet Wet just before the Marti Pellow heroin habit made front-page news, followed by the record deal that saw the label go bust before the ink was dry on the contract.

And tonight Johnson watches half his audience leave before he even takes to the stage. "Sorry, I haven't got any friends here," he shrugs as the support band pack their guitars and take their mates with them. It's no wonder he doesn't take his rain hat off. But while he's comfy in his anorak and jeans, the music he makes is powerful and unsettling.

As he tears into Kneeling Down, his hand is a blur as he violently plays his guitar. There are no half-hearted wisps of songs here, just lyrically abrupt, musically adept visions of the city. But while he attacks a lyric, a gentle melancholy is always there - Bob Dylan's passion tempered by Noel Gallagher's way with a tune. And true to form, there's a cheeky chappy Scouse persona to hide the pain.

Johnson is almost as entertaining when he's not singing as when he is. "I'm currently basking in critical acclaim," he announces. "It's the same as being under one of those sunbeds, without the little goggle things." If he chooses to abandon his guitar, a career in working men's clubs is ready and waiting. But it would be a pity if he did.

Cambridge Blues, a homage to the genius, though mad, musicians of that city ("Nick Drake, not someone you'd want to on go on holiday with," he concedes) is filled with fear and loneliness, while The Nominations Are tells of urban life in a cultural wasteland.

And while Johnson at times seems like a confident chancer who has jumped up on stage to grab five seconds of fame, he's riveting to watch, though the stage antics amount to little more than the odd kick of a leg.

But as he ends with a touching and acutely observed song detailing the life and death of Paula Yates, it's hard not to think that Johnson is something special.

Betty Clarke
The Guardian – 19 October 2000