Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Live Review - Calvin Johnson / National Park / Withered Hand

Calvin Johnson / National Park / Withered Hand
Lansdowne Parish Church, Glasgow
9 August 2008

Words: John Mackie

As I head through to the Weedge for this gig, all I can think of is how many wee hipsters are going to be there. I can't get my mind off them. This is Calvin Johnson I’m going to see after all…head of K Records… Beat Happening… Dub Narcotic… friend of… known as… recognised as… etc. I fight an internal battle all the way though. He has flown over from Olympia (a place which I picture as being some kind of “nearvana” populated solely by girls who look like Josie Long, the shops are exclusively “wee individual stores”, the only clothes shops are second hand and culty, the only shows are all ages, the talk is all ethical in content etc etc, i.e. an idyll of sorts but somewhere I am also very scared of). I feel so much cynicism in my heart when I think of all this. Maybe it’s me (ha!) but I see all these good efforts as being only for middle class people who look skewed and “stylised” and who are able to project their adherence to these values. I can't do that. I’m too wracked by 37 years to relax.

I feel that the youth see me as the enemy straight away. I attribute that to their perceived aesthetic dislike for my chain store clothes, my fatness, my lack of obvious charisma or pleasing shyness (i.e. hiding behind a fringe for 10 minutes but then giving you a discourse on Of Montreal B-sides…”oh he must be ok after all”... nah, I can’t do that…), my poor background, my lack of “Uni” education, my lifelong feeling that projecting any image intentionally is a dishonest thing to do and my recent awareness that this is one of the factors which excludes one from life. I felt tonight that I was likely to walk into a torture chamber of vogueing and oratory and adherence. I keep trying to remind myself how much I love Beat Happening and Calvin’s music and voice. I make this into a mantra - “Music and voice. Music and voice…” That’s what it’s about. That’s what it’s about.

I’m in the legendary and legendarily leafy west end of the ‘”underground” music capital of Scotland now. At times I imagine this place as the 2nd scariest on earth. Gangs of slickly dressed young bucks terrorising any working people or “genuine social misfits” (what are they really? I only know that certain factors surely make me one. Natch...) who may stumble into the Free State of “alt-dom” by mistake believing it to be subject to the humdrum ways of the rest of the world. In this neck of the woods twee-sters in duffel coats with teddy bears called Aloysius stuffed into the pocket hold court re: their sense of loathing at the average square’s lack of awareness of the works of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. I never picture this place as being full of inclusivity. I tend to feel extremely intimidated by these bairns. I say to myself, “shit, maybe they’ll know that I drink milk these days” or might have deviated from certain paths and they’ll all “presume” that I could never understand them and their penchant for ninny-ish dancing at discotheques.

It’s funny tho. The closer I get to the venue, the more settled I become. I think the sight of a few folk clearly older than me is soothing. What is more calming is the sight of the most violent overflow pipe in the world spewing water out of the side of the church. Hell, we’re all going to drown anyways… Aye tonight is a drink free “all ages show” in a church hall complete with pulpit, the trappings of “community” activities and a number of massive bell-rope things (without bells) hanging in a distinctly noose-y fashion from the oak beams (no doubt these were “dedicated” by “the verger” i.e. the funny wee Tetley Tea man from Dad’s Army or the local Jeremy Beadle in 1213). The Tracer Trails people putting on the gig have also come to the fore and avoided any “cock ups on the catering front”. No scrabbling around for a few scrag ends for them. They’ve provided a sugary yet warming spread of pink lemonade, crispy cake things and soup. I like this immensely. It is cutesy as fuck but, even if the motivation is to do it “the way they do it in Olympia”, I don’t really care because it seems rather nice and civilised all told. Dare one say it, the act of providing civilised fare comes across as “friendly” and not as self conscious as one might expect it to. I sit down and try to focus on my mantra and add lines about how it is OK to be positive in social situations.

I look around. There’s a guy right in the middle of all the pretty girls and speccy boys who has acquired the look of a proper dissipated distracted 40-something bohemian. He is wearing a lengthy coat, bright red trousers, and a Joseph Beuys/Gunter Von Hagens (surely they are the same person?) hat/”death rictus” look. He’s something of a fish out of water in ‘ere. His voice is that of the crusty - middle English deliberately twisted into something way more suitable for that of an urban warrior. He is not genteel. He is just a little too loud for the reserved murmur billowing politely over the PA’s tinny “K Recs” “wacky pop” music. The kids are suspicious of sic a creature. I’m enjoying the spectacle thoroughly. He mills around for a while looking for a kindred spirit. I think he was looking for the bar. He seems to be trying to commit the cardinal sin of “trying to talk” to the youth who are there (this is of course the worst thing one of the uninvited can do in “certain” social settings). Maybe he is there “just to feel girl’s bottoms”? He’s creating a murmur or two of unease as well as a general human seepage away from him into the soup/ lemonade/ cake/ knitting area. Finally, he’s had enough. Right in the middle of a moment’s grace from the chit chat in the room he answers his phone at high volume and he’s gone just like that, off to find a friend in a modern, cold, sober world. Maybe his night will end in a glorious lost whirl of Gitanes, peyote and Gary Snyder after all. Sigh. The room is not bereft of those who fall into the cracks but the others are more timid. The table near me is populated by 2 Everett True/Nigel from East Enders look-alikes, both old enough to be grandfather to some of the folk selling the pink lemonade. And then there’s me of course? Remember, I’m a GSM (see above). I sit in the awkward seat in the corner on the outskirts taking it all in and wondering how to engage with it. I start thinking of all this as metaphor and then thankfully…

The first act up the night are Withered Hand. Jeez man, I loved this set and it was such a nice shock to the system. It re-established balance within. WH are essentially a one man operation called Dan backed up a minimal crew of 3 on auxiliary duties - Bart Christmas aka “The Craig and Charlie Man” from Eagleowl on a mandolin type thing + voice plus a lass on cello and a quiffy guy (who suspiciously looks like an ex-member of a group of local indie bairns who once incurred my wrath going way back) on drums. Basically Mr WH has a certain look - geek, nerd, whatever you call it and of course me being me I immediately imagine it’s a look based entirely on a fashion code laid down by somebody you’re “supposed” to listen to. He’s an outwardly uncomfortable looking awkward guy with glasses, tousled hair and a baseball cap. He’s a ringer for Jad Fair, a realisation which possibly opens my mind a little. It is fully open by the time I hear him coming out with lines like “I lived my life like my heart wasn’t always in it” and “You can keep your blood you can keep your glory. I’m just looking for my voice” It goes on. “ We’ve all got things that make us evil, we’ve all got things that make us cool” and “…and your lips were warm and your hands were cold I never thought I’d feel this old. Isn’t grey hair just the first light of a new dawn?”.

The voice is high and strained but before I know it, it has a soothing effect. It’s because it is not forced. He sounds a bit like Doug Martsch one minute and at other times draws from some of the more obvious “alt folk” sources in phrasing if not in timbre. He is one of those vocalists who have a voice which you can’t quite compare readily to others. He’s no Wincey Willis or whatever he was called so in this case I use that statement very much as a positive. The songs are so natural and relaxed even tho’ they come from experience and disappointment and life - uplifting without artificial sunshine being trowelled on. The music is rattling, and on one occasion rollicking, and warm and the group are sympathetic and light of touch in their playing supplying folky homespun tones and adding the right amount of exposition to the tunes and nothing more. Shit, it seems wholly without contrivance. His songs are pithy and couthy and emotive and offhand and small and wry. There is nothing of the “singer/songwriter”/Martin Stephenson about him tho’ I guess he is a guy with an acoustic guitar singing his own songs about himself in his own way. I think it’s time once again to reinforce the reclamation of the perception of this role from the many dullards who jump to mind when you think of one person playing their own songs. He has a disarming onstage demeanour to die for. It looks as if he tends to forget that he is in front of a mic and talks between songs like he’s gabbling to himself. I like the effect of this hugely. He also says things like “this is for anybody who’s been depressed. That’ll be all of you”.

Being a sad old person, I think I’m just so happy to listen to somebody who seems to write about life remotely as I know it - domestic despair, late night wanderings, uncertainty, where is my direction in life?, is there any point to “having a direction?”, bemusement, the search for happiness/meaning etc. These themes are all here in the wonderful music of Withered Hand and within the songs on his fantastic “Religious Songs” EP. This week it really has been “seldom off my turntable”…in a virtual sense. As a postscript to WH, there’s a rather touching interlude later when Dan bumps into someone in the crowd who is wearing the same jumper (white and stripy), hair and general demeanour. He seems to enjoy this immensely and the 2 pose for a photo! Seeing the 2 of them together was incredible. The doppelganger seemed more than a little uncomfortable. Dan didn’t. The contrast is amazing to behold. One of them looks like he was quite simply born to look like he does. The other guy does not. In my jaundiced mind (I do admit this is not the nicest of observations!) I can see the other guy primping and preening before he left the house, trying to assume a look. I just can’t picture Mr. WH doing this. It seems to sum up the liking I have for him and his music.

Aye well, on to National Park. Frankly this lot at best fell into the non-descript category following on from Withered Hand as they did. The feelings of total anticlimax were intensified further by the ensuing Calvin show to an extent where it felt as if they were akin to “athletes competing in different disciplines” i.e. one feigning “passivity” sandwiched between 2 multi-taskers. I found NP to be so standard, so reserved, so safe, so secure (just like thae friends who are left behind “amongst the books and all the records of your lifetime”) and so nonaligned was their performance with the sense of otherness/excitement/quality engendered by the other 2 acts on the bill that it felt as if, instead of watching a “live” act we were simply sitting idly staring at a grainy TV recording of “A SCOTTISH JINGLE JANGLE ACT c. 1990” i.e. one that you didn't like, probably featuring Joe McAlinden.

For the duration of the set it was as if the “twee” ones in the room had been replaced by many of the youth I encountered in those days when the UK was on the cusp of the “great” indie crossover. Goodbye to my beloved Talulah Gosh and yer Shop Assistants. The Milltown Brothers are here. We’re talking over the show. It’s all about aggro and 30” flares now. I’m at an indie night in Fife, a bunch of baggy scum have invaded and there are fisticuffs every time Bill Gimmix tries to play either “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “Baby Honey”. The scent of soup from the kitsch kitchen next door brings me back to reality. It’s not Joe Mac on stage but it is a man who looks too like Edwin Collins to be trusted. I’m sorry Jim but they appear to be playing tunes that are too Teenage Fanclub oriented to be enjoyed (by me). (Oddly enough I learn later that Gerry Love is/was an occasional member and that they are longstanding legends of the scene with the Edwin guy having been in BMX Bandits and others. I also read a quote that refers to them having no similarity to bands such as TFC. I’m sorry but that is completely wrong…).

The “fannies” brand trademarks are ever present - loping wee ditties that sound undernourished and puffy, repetitious of passages heavy on “chiming” guitar strolls. They play in a flat manner, perhaps explained by the presence of 2 locums filling in at short notice. The most enjoyable times come when they do one (an instrumental of all things) that sounds like The Vaselines. This tune had a rattle and a ramshackle rasp which at least possessed a semblance of life and vitality. For once it sounded as if they were putting their stones into it and like the Frances and Eugene show of yore there was a heady suggestion that they might no make it to the end of the song but the important thing was that what they did up to that point was a snippet, a bare moment of glory, a hint of SOMETHING. The rest of the set relied heavily on humdrum plaintive Norman 'n’ Gerry and returned to safe and planned and cosy. I think my reactions were probably stirred by the Edwin thing which was on my mind throughout, i.e. I became consumed by fear that I was about to witness the total horror that is that skinny white boy funk guitar sound and would have to endure a massively unnatural way of vocalising. Acht, it wasn’t anything which scared me in the end. I was just numbed a little after the unexpected high I had witnessed before they came on. There were not offensive. The lass on the drums had a jazzy way of playing which probably hinted at the “droney” and loose textures and soundscapes which they are most likely aiming for and that the rest of the world seems to think they are producing. Aye it is strange how perceptions do vary...

Sanity in the sense of deviation from the norm was restored with Calvin Johnson. Firstly, all amplification was removed from the scene, well unplugged at least. The “house” lights are on and he comes across in his pink flip-flops and picks up a raggedy guitar. He wanders to the back of the “stage area” (there’s no stage you see, just an area where the music is produced and strangely at this point I think of my bedsit days, i.e. I sleep in a “sleeping area” instead of a bedroom, have a wank/think about “going to the bridge” in the “living area” etc etc) and releases that voice. In an era where crass and gross acts of exaggeration are commonplace this voice is surely a truly unique entity - a bottomless, trembling baritone, wavery in note but trenchant and unswerving in passion and conviction. His themes contain something of the Norman Rockwell (if he frequented drive-ins). All sock hops and hula hoops. He has written seemingly exclusively about stolen kisses and delightfully bruised ankles and hidden glances for 25 years. His songs are from a land and time that never was - chaste and lovelorn but bereft of the negative part of longing (i.e. the sense of reality when it hits you with all the what ifs and loose ends) and seeped only in a satisfying sepia hue of romanticism and “carve his/her name on my desk” (distinctly softcore) heartstring tugging.

This is all from a world completely unknown to me but hell I can dream too goddamn it. Yes it is VERY TWEE. I don’t think I can defend that and I don’t really want to. He has always made other worldly music all of it underpinned by the lush theatrical voice, one of a storyteller with a hint of a shaggy dog glint. The songs could be show tunes if he lived in another dimension. Big and camp and sparkly but perfectly balanced by one of the other features of the Calvin aesthetic ie the punk rock side. Perfection and “playing ability” are not considerations to him. It is all about the moment and mood, impact and feel. Tonight the songs are wholly sparse and unadorned. The majority are just voice and rudimentary guitar with one memorable and spectacularly straight faced one about sitting alone at the movies (see what I mean about the “off kilter” nature of it?) has voice only. Here he indulges in some entertaining and thrilling hand gestures, the kind which surely started the “Calvinism” cult adhered to in certain parts. It’s so impassive that it makes me want to laugh out loud and I think that’s the point.

A fair few numbers seem to be off the cuff affairs. Near the start he announces “here a few songs. I just made ‘em up” and it does sound like that, as if he is simply riffing and ad libbing on his familiar themes and dipping into the tried and tested CJ phraseology but man it’s exhilarating. You can’t keep your eyes off him. He plays one or two recognisable songs - including the lovely “Can We Kiss?” from his skeletal first solo record “What Was Me”, the arrangements and tone of which tie in more closely to the set up of tonight’s show than his most recent “…& The Sons Of The Soil” LP recorded with a group of K alumni. His songs have changed so little over the years that he might as well have been doing a set of Beat Happening classics. As much as I would have liked that to have been the case for the sake of selfish and shitty spent old man nostalgia it really didn’t matter and it would have been somehow inconsistent with his non-careerist and evolving makeup and rightly so. Look, there’s nothing that hasn’t been said about him over the years.

Leaving aside underground aesthetics and all that (info can be provided from anywhere on the interweb) I find his lack of willingness to do a rock or an indie show thing liberating and his committed, undeniably contrived and arch performance and presence have an element of the mesmerising to them. It’s as fascinating to watch other folk’s reactions as it is to watch Calvin himself. I have officially the worst seat in the house and because he tends to stay near the back of the stage his head becomes an unused PA cabinet (a brand manufactured by a company using my surname) and his torso a pulpit. This situation and my shyness in terms of attracting attention by being seen to move to a better position/not wanting to block other folks view does lend itself to a drifty feeling and an opportunity to observe what’s going on in the rest of the Sunday School group. Because he has such a massive reputation and position in the “underground” fraternity you can see that folk don’t know how to react to him at first. He doesn’t say anything for a while and then embarks on a long and deadpan ramble about British money which people seem to react to in an edgy fashion. Is he meaning to be funny? How are we supposed to react to him? Is he saying anything seminal etc? The stripped back nature of the show is obviously dividing opinion tho’ folk probably will not allow themselves to register any voice of dissent or feelings of discomfort re the fluffed notes and the wobbly singing for fear of being seen not to ‘understand’. I can see this factor at large in the room. There’s a mix of genuine joy as well as chin stroking and jaw dropping and confusion and bemusement going on and I’m really relishing it.

At these moments I love him even more for testing the resolve of the more flamboyantly attired in the room. It makes me sad that people are obviously reacting and double taking in this way. FOR THE SAKE OF FUCK. If you like something, shout and scream about it from the rooftops. If you don’t like it go and find something else. I just wish folk wouldn’t have ulterior motives for listening to music. That’s a theme that I can’t get away from. I listen to music because certain things produce indescribable effects and intangibles within. I don’t continue to listen to music because a certain publication or fat bloke writing in a carpetless hovel lovelorn in the middle of the night told me I should or because I think it might get me “in there” or advance me. Seeing reactions from folk like I did make me sad but they also strengthen my resolve to (a) keep listening to music for my own reasons and (b) realise how much I love Calvin’s music. I come back to myself and his voice is still going. It’s warm and treacly and I love it for what it is and what it isn’t and everything in between. That’s why I like him. I start thinking of the words to a BH song and I realise that “everything I learned has been burned…” I would hope that some of the folk sitting agog had their minds blown because that’s as it should be.

1 comment:

Jenna Michaelis said...

I saw this iteration of Calvin the summer of 2007 with a crowd of about a dozen people in the basement of an art collective in Sacramento, CA.

I was amazed that only 12 showed up for the performance. It's certainly something I will not forget, and something that you wrote about beautifully.