Of all the shows that I host that are under-attended the fact that Will Johnson doesn’t sell out continues to baffle me. If his band Centro-matic was playing the basement it would sell out in a heartbeat (well, I would hope so at least), but people don’t seem to realize that this is the heart of that band, the songwriter, the voice. Plus, he’s extremely awesome solo, and he was especially swoon-worthy tonight. He tried to wrap it up at an hour, but I told him I frankly was not ready for him to be done yet. I then asked if I could make a request. “Um, maybe,” he replied looking nervous. “Chorine My Sheba Queen?” I said hopefully. The track from New Multitudes, a collection of Woody Guthrie songs with original music, is the standout on a disc that also features the distinctive voices of Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Anders Parker. He pulled out a cheat sheet that he didn’t need and played a stunning version of it.
This was the fourth time Johnson has played the basement, and even though I am always disappointed with the turnout, he never seems to be. In fact, he seems to love playing here, and am I ever glad. He chided me for booking the show when I already had three other shows this month, it’s too much he said. But of the four shows, this was the one I was most excited about. And this was my favorite of the shows he’s done. The song selection drew from his most recent solo record, the slow-burning Scorpion, as well as more upbeat tunes from the most recent Centro-matic record Candidate Waltz, and from his extensive back catalog. As good as the songs were, at the risk of blaspheming, his banter may have been even better. He railed against the McRib, the most nonsensical of all fast food, calling it an effing lying sandwich to hilarious effect, and reflected on the ridiculousness of Texans driving in a blizzard (which he had navigated in Buffalo a few weeks prior). After the show, he kept Michelle and I in stitches another hour, mostly by continuing his McRib rant. He was slated to do a storyteller type songwriter in the round show at the end of the month and threatened that all he was going to talk about was his most hated sandwich. Beware Denver.
I gave opener Paul Otteson first pick of my November shows and after listening to everything, he decided on tonight’s show. While he honestly may have been into what Johnson is doing, and I agreed this show was the best match for him, it may have been the promise of playing completely unplugged that actually convinced him. Like Johnson, he projects much better than expected without amplification, and his always perfect voice may have been even more stunning in this setting. He certainly relished the opportunity, commenting several times on how great it was to play like this. He’ll be the first person I call next time there’s a PA-free show. Unlike the also-unplugged Damien Jurado show a few months back, where it seemed like the whole audience was holding its collective breath, tonight was loose, comfortable and a whole lot of fun. I can’t wait till Will comes back.