Calvin Johnson is many things: guitarist, singer, producer, disc jockey, and founder of K Records. But during his show on Thursday, Sept. 12, he tried to make it feel like he was just another person at the Cat in the Cream. Eschewing performance conventions in favor of a cultivated intimacy with his audience, Johnson played a set that, by its end, simultaneously puzzled and enraptured those in attendance.
Johnson is often noted as a major influence on the modern independent music movement. He established K Records in 1982, according to the label’s website, and founded the Dub Narcotic Studio in 1993. That facility still exists, and in the spirit of DIY music-making, has helped many artists record, particularly those local to Olympia, WA. Johnson’s show at the Cat in the Cream reflected his longstanding reputation for casting aside mainstream methods.
Johnson’s performance involved vocals, guitar, and occasional tambourine. His distinctly deep voice had a droning quality that he sometimes distorted using effects, producing a warbling timbre like that of a didgeridoo. The unpredictable nature of Johnson’s voice was reflected in the variety of his show, too. Interspersed throughout his set were several songs performed a cappella. During these songs, Johnson displayed strange moves loosely resembling dance that involved many flowing hand gestures. One of his a cappella songs had a spoken word quality to it.
More striking than Johnson’s performance, however, was his method. Johnson performed an acoustic show in the most literal sense of the word. He chose to sing and play guitar without any microphones, and even asked for the air conditioning system in the venue to be turned off during his show. The acoustic nature of Johnson’s show by itself is not unseen at Oberlin; however, a few other aspects of his performance combined to create an intense listening experience. One can expect to find traditional stage lighting at most Cat in the Cream shows. Johnson, however, performed with the entire venue brightly lit. He made very focused eye contact with audience members, since his sight was not obscured by stage lighting. Johnson also chose not to pause for applause or audience recognition between most of his songs. This unsettling choice may have contributed to Johnson’s initial struggle to establish a connection with the audience. Audience members and latecomers to the show moved precariously about the room. It felt impolite to even munch on a Cat cookie, lest one create the background noise Johnson worked so hard to eliminate.
As the show continued, however, the audience adjusted to Johnson’s method. When given the chance, audience members responded to his songs with enthusiastic applause. Johnson punctuated every few songs with friendly banter. He highlighted the benefits of open mic nights and entertained audience questions. One audience member asked Johnson about his first meal of the day — a light-hearted question that afforded him an opportunity to appear less standoffish, which he succeeded in doing.
Overall, audience members appeared to have strong reactions to Johnson’s unconventional style. A number of people left the venue in between songs, but just as many stayed transfixed for the entire show and applauded loudly. Furthermore, fans swarmed Johnson’s merchandise table after the show, purchasing records in a display of conspicuous consumption rarely seen at an Oberlin show.
Johnson’s show was at times unconventional and unsettling. By the night’s close, however, he was warmly received by devoted — or perhaps newfound — fans. Johnson eventually managed to cultivate a working rapport with his audience, producing a show that was strange but ultimately satisfying.