Is it any wonder that Calvin Johnson has chosen Wharf Chambers for his Leeds’ show given the similarities between performer and location? Each exists beyond the fringes of the mainstream. The American guitarist, singer, songwriter, music producer and occasional DJ operates outside the margins of conventional popular music, whilst the venue – an austere, atmospheric Victorian building – is situated in the darkness that lies on the edge of the brighter city centre metropolis.
Calvin Johnson and Wharf Chambers also both hold dear the concepts of partnership, unity, inclusivity and understanding. The man from Olympia in Washington state has forged a career which stretches back more than 40 years and has featured his having founded the highly influential independent imprint K Records as well as collaborating with countless other musicians along the way ranging from Kurt Cobain to Modest Mouse, Beck and Built to Spill. And the venue – which once saw life as a pork-pie factory – is a workers’ co-operative run in alliance with a members’ club.
Calvin Johnson has long since ditched any notion of amplification. He steps onto the Wharf Chambers’ stage minus a microphone and toting an unplugged acoustic guitar. The intimate surroundings may well lend themselves to such a stripped-down approach but Johnson has one further weapon in his musical arsenal. His voice. A huge baritone beast of an instrument it occasionally wavers wildly off-key but is never anything less than impressive. It does bring to mind David Byrne, the aforementioned Beck, Brad Roberts from the Canadian rock band Crash Test Dummies and Lee Hazlewood, albeit a couple of shades darker and a pitch or two lower.
Though released last October, Calvin Johnson is here in the UK to promote A Wonderful Beast, his third solo album but his first such offering in some 13 years. He treats us to a lovely handful of tunes from the record including opener, ‘Wherefore Are Thou’, the album’s powerful title track, the outrageously contagious ‘Bubbles, Clouds and Rainbows’, and, best of the lot, his penultimate song of the evening the delightfully dreamy ‘(I’ve Still Got) Sand In My Shoes’.
But it is not all about the new record as Calvin Johnson visits other parts of his recording career demonstrating his range, influences and downright versatility along the way. A cover of Gene Vincent’s ‘Crazy Legs’ is inspired, in part, by Johnson’s visit earlier today to Wall of Sound (in the basement of Crash Records on the city’s Headrow) where the late lamented rock’n’roll legend’s records apparently took up more than half of the shop’s ‘rock’n’roll’ section.
His interpretation of ‘Lonesome Sundown’ (by The Halo Benders, with Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, one of Johnson’s many past side projects) casts Calvin Johnson in the role of country crooner and probably wouldn’t have been too far out of place on Marty Robbins’ 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. He also gives us a couple of songs from another of his musical adventures, the adopted DJ persona of Selector Dub Narcotic. Here Johnson delivers ‘All For The Sake of Rhymin’’ and the closing ‘Every Woman’, both unaccompanied and both evidencing his wry way with words and sponge-like ability to absorb the additional influences of rap, funk and all the fun of a disco party.
It is a brave, honest, emotionally exposed performance from Calvin Johnson one which pushes his firm belief in the do-it-yourself aesthetic to its quite literal limit and marks him out as a unique, maverick talent in the world of contemporary music.
Photos: Simon Godley
More photos from this show can be found HERE
Calvin Johnson’s UK tour continues here:
10 May – Old Cinema Launderette, Durham
11 May – Glad Café, Glasgow w/ Eugene Kelly
12 May – Lovelocks Coffee Shop, Liverpool
13 May – Gullivers Ballroom, Manchester
16 May – Grain Barge, Bristol
17 May – Woodlane Social Club, Falmouth
18 May – The Hutong Cafe, Plymouth
19 May – The Rose Hill Art Space, Brighton