I took three friends to Calvin Johnson’s performance at Grinnell College’s student-run coffee house. After two songs, I was left alone. My friends had walked out, whispering to me that I should trash the guy in my review. It seems they found his music “inaccessible”, though that isn’t quite the word they used.
Their reaction didn’t surprise me. Johnson’s only solo album to date, 2002’s What Was Me, is, well, different—not at all what one would expect from the man behind Dub Narcotic Sound System and indie label K Records. It is serenely humble and authentic, likened often to old jazz and Motown records. If you listened to it for the first time (like I did) without knowing too much, you were probably a little shocked by the crooning, back-of-the-throat baritone vocals that drive the tracks. The jury is still out on where the album falls on the spectrum, somewhere between “Crazy For No Reason” and “Genius,” but it’s definitely somewhere on that spectrum.
Many in the crowd, including my friends, hadn’t heard What Was Me before the show so it was interesting to watch their reactions. About two-thirds of the crowd stayed for the full set. Some stayed simply to be polite, and others because they would have been there doing homework whether or not there was a concert going on. But most of those who stayed were genuine music fans that, after overcoming their initial surprise, decided Johnson’s music deserved a chance.
As someone who already owned his record, though, the show was exactly what I expected: modest and minimalist, it teetered on the awkward edge between sincerity and novelty. It left me thinking, “I’m happy I saw it, but I don’t know if I’d want to see it again.”
Johnson walked into the venue alone with only a guitar case, mingling through the crowd during a Grinnell student’s opening set. When it was his turn on stage, Johnson moved the provided barstool and microphone out of the way (he didn’t use either), said, “Hi, I’m Calvin,” and started to play.
His set, like his record, consisted mostly of quiet, personal songs driven by classical guitar and peppered a capella numbers. Without a stool or a microphone, Johnson was free to wander awkwardly around the stage. And, although I must admit that this being my first indie rock show featuring a capella songs, I still think it’s worth mentioning that he made unusual hand motions to his music when he sang sans guitar.
Strange as the wandering and gesturing might sound, his stage presence fit the overall performance; it—somehow—segued nicely into the song “What Was Me”.
Johnson spent a considerable portion of his hour-and-15-minute set telling stories over casual guitar strums. He spent the better part of a half hour retelling the story of Dub Narcotic Sound System’s near-catastrophic 2003 van accident in eastern Montana. His words formed an informal cadence that made the story sound lyrical but too slow: it was easy to drift away during lengthy digressions about “rest days” on tour and thrift stores, or about a band on his label stopping at a gas station but forgetting to fill up (and driving off with the gas nozzle and hose in tow). The occasional boredom notwithstanding, though, it was charming and, most of the time, interesting.
Johnson also took “questions and comments” from the audience. During the Q&A session, he confirmed that Kurt Cobain had a K Records tattoo, tentatively accepted an invitation to play in Seattle, Washington, and told us about his experiences buying vegan shoes on both sides of the Atlantic. Again: unusual but fitting.
Trashing Johnson’s show as my friends wanted would have been an easy out, given all of the available cannon fodder; but there was something about the show’s unusual character that was, well, respectable. I left with the feeling that I had actually (and inadvertently) gotten to know Calvin Johnson the Person, and I liked him. It wasn’t in that superficial way that one can “get to know” Chris Carrabba at a Dashboard Confessional show or Tori Amos; it was somehow deeper than that. It’s something really unique, indescribable.
If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to What Was Me, and picture yourself in a small coffeehouse, listening to one of the most important figures in independent music sing those songs, tell personal stories, and answer questions. Then you’ll see why I didn’t walk out.