Reviews

Calvin Johnson + Mt. Eerie + WOELV

Peter Joseph
Calvin Johnson + Mt. Eerie + WOELV

Calvin Johnson + Mt. Eerie + WOELV

City: El Bohemio/La Nortena
Date: 2004-09-20

Calvin Johnson

Photo: Michael Lavine
It's been a long time since we've seen anything new happen in rock music -- and I don't just say that as a professionally unpaid critic. For anyone who regularly goes to gigs, they know by now what to expect. The live show has about as much variety from band to band, night to night and venue to venue, and nowhere is this more apparent than that useless vestige of opera and the formal concerts than in the encore. Usually, I feel as if I could time the applause as the audience waits for the inevitable encore. Some bands do; They Might Be Giants once told me that they sit backstage and stare at a stopwatch for exactly five minutes before coming back on. Most fans approach the encore with a shrug -- they know to keep dutifully clapping, waiting around for one or two more songs usually the ones they really came to hear. You can imagine my surprise when WOELV, a young female singer who had never been to New York save a teenage trip to the Bronx Zoo, played the night's middle set and earned a roaring, cheering call for an encore. The applause lasted until she walked back across the stage, but instead of picking up her guitar she forced the deejay to start playing a record and then darted out of sight. To have this unknown performer bowl over an unsuspecting audience and then moodily refuse their acclaim was her style in a nutshell. WOELV, nee Genevieve Castree, a Francophone poet, artist and singer from Canada, possesses a voice as beautiful and petulant as any major female singer around today. Her publisher's website makes the obvious comparisons to Chan Marshall and Bjork, two performers who match her stage presence and vocal ability respectively, and it seems as if similar levels of world renown might be hers for the taking. Her songs are sung entirely in French, accompanied by spare, thumb picked guitar. While her sound is the very epitome of lo-fi, and the message of her lyrics inscrutable to my unfortunate English-speaking self, any listener can imagine the lush musical accompaniment that would best suit her tunes. The meaning and feelings of her lyrics seem obvious through the far reaching highs and lows of her volume, and the points where she expertly and intuitively allows it to crack or stop short. Castree is a singer who could be world-renowned, could grow to stunning popularity, but, given her personality, could just as easily refuse it and choose obscurity. I strongly suggest catching her this time around, before she has the chance to pull a Salinger or Rimbaud on us all. It may seem from my gushing praise above that this show was performed in some classic hall, perhaps a little corner theatre in Lincoln Center. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The "club" was in fact an obscure Mexican restaurant, filled with garish black lights, Corona signs, sombreros and a taxidermied raccoon. To make matters worse the restaurant had recently tried to change its name, though rather than making a complete switch it instead seemed stuck somewhere in transition, using both El Bohemio and La Nortena depending upon where one looked. This indecisive titling perfectly suited Phil Elvrum, who recently changed his bands' name from The Microphones to Mt. Eerie for reasons I can't hazard to guess. As it is with the El Bohemio/La Nortena conundrum, no apparent change in style came with the switch. Though he often has other performers and a variety of sounds on his records, he performed solo, lightly strumming an electric guitar. Because the venue didn't have any stage at all, he spent the set standing on a chair -- toppling only once -- in front of a crowd seated on the floor. Though his voice does his songs justice, it was easy to miss the messy variety of noise and effects that appears on his recordings. Occasionally during his songs you could hear a cry from the audience filling in a word or echoing his refrains. As with WOELV, it felt as if everyone could imagine unheard orchestration, each listener filling in the blanks with the sounds they imagined. During his opening set, Calvin Johnson sang mostly a cappella along to what must have been a big band playing in his head. He swayed back and forth atop a chair, his hand gestures and deep-voiced torch songs suggesting an audition for a high school musical. Johnson is something of a minor rock legend, known for his part in the band Beat Happening, as founder of the label K Records and as leading man in Dub Narcotic Sound System, so his placement as the evening's opening act seemed somewhat confused. Johnson seemed eager for self-effacement, speaking in a half-dazed, stilted tone that suggested either a long history of narcotics. Whatever his background, he seems happy to play the fool for comic effect, pretending to be confused or at least astonished by the concept of "Bridge and Tunnel People" and the profligacy of hip New York bars that name themselves after whatever previous tenant put up an awning, such as Arlene's Grocery and Pianos (or as Johnson called them, "Pianos for Sale"). Johnson's half-baked demeanor crossed the line into self-parody during an extended spoken word piece. Ostensibly, the piece told the story of the car accident that landed him in the hospital and cut short Dub Narcotic Sound System's tour last year. It was a narrowly avoided tragedy, but thanks to a long series of comic digressions that pushed the speech well over the twenty minute mark, the audience began to lose interest. Their chatter nearly drowned Johnson out by the time he finished talking about the difference between moose and deer and began to describe how the band's van swerved, flipped over several times and threw him and bandmate Heather Dunn several yards away. It's questionable how many people in the audience really caught this key part of the story. He finished abruptly, eyes watering, and broke into one more song and dance number. After his explanation of the accident that put his band out of commission (they have not toured since), his somber, unaccompanied singing of what should have been cheerful love songs seemed poignant and perhaps slightly grotesque.

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