Thursday, April 1, 2010

Will Johnson & Anders Parker – Austin, TX, 3/30/10

Will Johnson and Anders Parker kicked off their house show tour in Austin last night and I was lucky enough to attend the sold-out show with approximately 25 other people. Hosting a house can be a tricky thing considering that you’re inviting complete strangers into your home all on the basis that they love the same music as you. It’s up to the host to create a comfortable environment for the visitors as well as the performers. The host for the evening did a great job making each guest feel at ease in his modernly designed home and even provided Chinese food for those that were hungry. The stage setup was simply two chairs and a couple of acoustic guitars. The whole tour will consist of similar scenes since Undertow was clear that no microphones or amps would be used during the house shows. All you really need with these performers is their voices, guitars and words.

Anders Parker started the evening with his blend of folk and indie pop. I’m not completely familiar with all of Anders’ work but I went into the evening knowing one of his solo albums. He fronted the alternative country band, Varnaline, back in the day and has gone on to create numerous solo albums and a collaborative project with Jay Farrar entitled Gob Iron. Parker spent some time in Brooklyn, but now resides in Vermont and looks the part with a wooly beard and hair that screams “lumberjack”. His set consisted of songs that spanned his entire discography. Quiet folk songs were played in between discordant acoustic rockers. Anders didn’t spend a lot of time talking but did thank everyone for coming out and remarked on how happy he was to be back on the road with Will Johnson. He said that before the show they were reminiscing on all of their strange tour stories but that he would let Will tell them when the time came.

The best moment of Parker’s set came at the end of a song about the owner of a bar in Brooklyn where he used to work. It was a heartfelt Irish tinged song that kept the attention of every audience member. As Anders played the last chord of the song, the homeowner’s dog let out a loud howl. The timing was perfect! Anders just laughed and stated that they had worked on the song for an hour earlier in the day. The moment was a great example of the little things that make a house show so special and intimate.

There was a brief intermission between the two performer’s sets and everyone was able to stretch and grab another beverage. Will Johnson sat at the front of the room and quietly tuned his guitar while the crowd noise grew louder. A few minutes later the host killed the music, Will started playing and everyone went silent. It’s been mentioned a few times on this blog but it can’t hurt to reiterate the importance of Will Johnson’s voice and songs. The power of his raspy voice mixed with the emotion of his songs is a combination that's hard to put into words. The mixture is one that thousands of performers try to accomplish but few actually pull off. I’ve been lucky enough to see so many of Johnson’s projects, including Centro-matic and Monsters of Folk, but nothing compares to his solo show. The first word rang out and he had the small crowd’s attention and whatever awkwardness that was in the air was destroyed.

Johnson filled his hour long set with crowd favorites and lesser known songs from his vast catalogue. Songs like “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” and “Flashes & Cables” drew the biggest pre-chorus cheers while songs from the Molina & Johnson album slowly made sense in the ears of first time listeners. Johnson played a new track, “Chorine, My Sheeba Queen”, from an upcoming collaborative album exploring the lost lyrics and words of Woody Guthrie. Jim James, Jay Farrar and Anders Parker are the other players on the album. As Will explained the album, I thought that it’s not every day that you hear someone tell a story about working with Jim James and Jay Farrar on new Guthrie tunes in a stranger’s living room. Will remarked how good it was to have a dog in the crowd as the owner’s dog made his way in and out of people’s legs. He was quick to point out that things are not so good when there are two dogs in a crowd. He then told a story involving a show in Bisbee, Arizona and two dogs that couldn’t wait for a private environment to do “the nasty”.

The crowd was attentive throughout the set and even felt comfortable enough to ask a few questions along the way. Will politely answered and then plowed through another heart wrenching song. He closed the evening with a cover of Vic Chesnutt’s “Independence Day” that was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever witnessed. I assume that this was one of the first times that he had performed the song since Chesnutt’s passing in December. They were close friends and even toured together in the fantastic Undertow Orchestra so everyone understood the importance of the moment. The song perfectly captured the humor and poetry of Chesnutt and Johnson played the tribute perfectly. Johnson let the last chord ring out and then sat there in motionless silence for 15 seconds. It’s a moment that’s impossible to put into words so I'll just recommend listening to Chesnutt's album, Little.

Overall the night was a huge success. The performers and guests both left happy and Johnson and Parker remarked on how they hoped the rest of the tour goes as smoothly as the opening night. A big thanks to Shane for opening his home and hosting the show. Make sure you check the tour out if they come your way. As an added bonus Will Johnson has small prints of his great baseball paintings for sale at the merch table. You can find all of the dates and ticket information at the Undertow website.

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