The first time I heard Calvin Johnson sing on a CD my buddy had burned for me, I laughed. Deep, wavering vocals, amateurish guitar, odd lyrics, it’s almost goofy – an innocent shamble. There seems to be a universal reaction of “well, I could do better than this,” but, in my case, said friend was a musical piranha who had introduced me to many of my favorites, so I opted to give it a few more spins.
Turned out the payoff was significant: the songs were memorable, urgently sweet, painfully awkward, shaping, seminal. I learned Johnson was some sort musical fixture in the Pacific Northwest, an indie deity much loved by Kurt Cobain and all of the DIY community, founder of esteemed label K Records and the influential band Beat Happening.
Johnson at The Smell was the perfect storm, a confluence of bizarro aesthetic and casual, throwaway swagger. If you’ve never been to The Smell, I say go.
But don’t go for the great acoustics, as I learned. The dance party next door had some fun, bouncy bass lines leaking in, sonically drowning our soft, introspective indie lineup.
Make no mistake. This is the king of dive music venues (I almost fell through a rickety theater seat obviously wrenched from a cinema in years past).
Likewise, if you’ve never seen Johnson perform, I say go, but not for the production value. This is barebones, nylon stringed acoustic in hand, aching heart on the sleeve stuff. Seriously, maybe a few tunes with accompanying drums, oftentimes not, and sometimes nothing besides the naked vox (which you gotta hear in person to believe).
Playing largely his solo material from What Was Me (2002) and Before the Dream Faded… (2005), the set was incredibly loose, always captivating. Calvin’s voice could so easily become oppressive, but it remains buoyantly fun and playful.
Kids sat comfortably cross-legged watching with rapt attention as Calvin danced about, like a classroom of quirk-aficionados being read their favorite bedtime story. We got something singular at The Smell, tuneful and energetic, and not a second of it the same old.
Music: Live Show Reviews
Calvin Johnson (6/14/07): June 14 @ the Smell
By Mike Venezia
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Article posted on 7/5/2007
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