Calvin Johnson At The Black Cat

Over the years, Calvin Johnson has performed with various musicians in various guises -- from the DIY twee trio Beat Happening to Northwest indie rock supergroup the Halo Benders to the rock 'n' roll dance party of the Dub Narcotic Sound System to just simply Calvin with that booming baritone and an acoustic guitar, the offbeat folk singer -- but these days, 30 some years after he got into the biz as a teenage DJ for independent radio, a Calvin Johnson show is more performance art than rock concert.

Johnson's been more artist and patron than musician for several years, now, often sharing the stage with up-and-coming artists and collaborating with them in projects like his paper opera tour a few years back. In fact, this concert was only the second time I've seen him play a music venue rather than an art gallery since the '90s, and the previous time, he took top billing but played first in order to give more exposure to his friends. Opener Julie Doiron fit right in. Albeit, she's not an up-and-comer -- her band Eric's Trip made terrific records for Sub Pop in the '90s and she's recorded several strong solo albums since -- but she shares that DIY earnestness, sweetness and sincerity that Johnson and many of his past collaborators have held dear. Also, her set was as much biography as concert. She began alone with an electric guitar, demonstrating her delicate, textured picking and nuanced vocal phrasings, her sweet voice ranging from tearful whisper to near shout. In between songs, she spoke of her life and inspirations: her children, Eric's Trip breaking up just before it was scheduled to play D.C. for the first time and seeing the other members of Eric's Trip get together in a side project with a different bassist in Doiron's place a couple of years before the breakup. In the back of Black Cat's backstage room, one chatty table's volume fluctuated with Doiron's, leading one to wonder why they wouldn't just retreat to the Red Room for drinks and conversation until Johnson would take the stage. Midway through the set, Doiron brought three other Canadian musicians on stage with her to fill out the sound. The full-band treatment works best for Doiron's work, but the increased volume allowed the disrespectful showgoers to speak up even more, which was painfully obvious when Doiron and her band frequently and abruptly dropped volume and retreated back into a more sensitive realm. And then her countrymates retreated from the stage to let Doiron finish out alone.

Also a storyteller, Johnson's second song, "Love Will Come Back Again," began with an extended intro through which Johnson strummed prettily while telling the tale of the tour's origin. From buying the new "Julie record" and calling Secretly Canadian to find out if she would tour to agreeing to tour with Julie to being without a band because his latest album, "Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil," was recorded with members of various other active outfits to locating a drummer to serve as his band with the help of D.C. music legend Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Scene Creamers, Weird War -- he wandered about the room during this show), it was a witty tale. More importantly, it's actually interesting to hear how this man's collaborations with other accomplished musicians come about. The song itself, once finally launched proper, is hushed and pretty and one of the best songs of his solo career, perfectly capturing the oddball romantic aesthetic he's come to define. It's an older and wiser Johnson singing this song, but he looks the same as he has for the past 15 years, except for a little more light in the hair.

Though performing as just a duo, Johnson was able to keep things varied. His incredible, oddly hypnotic, deep voice allows this. On "The Leaves of Tea," he put aside his guitar and just sang along with the drums. Oddly, this sparse number had some of the most rocking moments of the set. And Johnson performing without an ax is always a treat to see because of his goofball dance steps and twirling arms. In contrast, "Move Around" was a jazzier number while "Rabbit Blood" was like DIY classic rock.

In mid-set, Johnson excitedly remembered his tour T-shirts and cast aside his guitar to remove his sweater and show off one of them. "I know you guys all work for the government," he warned before displaying the shirt that read "Stop Torture" with the little K Records shield beneath it. I imagine he was more excited about these shirts here than on any other stop on tour, considering their message. He pulled a second shirt out of his pocket, but it was the wrong one, so from the merch table, the second tour T-shirt was delivered. It simply read, "Impeach."

Most of "The Sons of the Soil" finds Johnson revisiting and reinterpreting songs from his various post-Beat Happening projects. For that album, he selected "Love Travels Faster" from his Halo bending days, but for this set, it was "Lonesome Sundown," with a forlornliness perfect for his voice. The closing selection, "What Was Me" from the 2002 solo record of the same name, was quintessential Calvin 2.0 -- big-voiced, quirky folk rock brimming at once with both loneliness and supreme confidence. You'd need to know both to pull off a performance piece like this.

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