Calvin Johnson and Friends Lead Audience Down Long, Winding Road

Lizzie Conner

Calvin Johnson croons un-amplified into the ceiling of Fairchild Chapel, barely skipping a beat when he swings his classical guitar to his back and reverting to a speaking voice to address the audience candidly. About 40 people showed up to celebrate Valentine’s Day with K Record’s “Ring Leader” (his official title at the label), many of whom came to indulge their love for one of his previous bands — Beat Happening, The Halo Benders, or Dub Narcotic Sound System. Johnson is known primarily for these projects and his involvement in the founding of K Records. Until very recently, he has been writing and performing as a solo artist.

Despite lacking the rest of his new “band,” The Hive Dwellers, nothing was missing as Johnson took the stage alone on Monday. He filled the space with his charismatic, deep-belly voice and mid-song strolls. It was hard to imagine the songs being played any other way.

In the first of several lengthy rambles, Johnson elaborated extensively on his childhood obsession with The Beatles and somehow ended up introducing the opening act, Timothy Wind (a.k.a. The Savage Young Taterbug). Wind performed three earsplitting songs that threw structure and melody to the wind, banging on the low end of Fairchild’s upright piano to demand the audience’s attention.

Although both artists tend towards a “Long And Winding Road”-influenced song structure, often leaving the audience wondering whether they’ve kicked off a new tune or are still meandering through the first, in most respects Calvin Johnson could not be more different from the opener. While several people had fingers shielding their ears from Wind’s performance, the audience relaxed at the sound of Johnson’s raw-honey voice. Half the crowd turned in its seats to share smiles with pew-mates and within minutes people were leaning forward on their elbows to listen.

When, before the show, Johnson asked me for suggestions on paying tribute to the day’s occasion, I suggested he find some red confetti and play a few love songs. To the first idea, he nodded and laughed in agreement, but he seemed surprised, almost perplexed by the second, as if love songs were a novel concept. Despite this, almost every tune had the nostalgic feel of sincere puppy-love. During “Can We Kiss?,” Johnson sang with eyebrows raised, “I know you’re Cupid’s bulls-eye / I’m Cupid’s flame-darkened alibi / Are we gonna let this mild contradiction / Keep us from kissing?”

Johnson also sang both songs from Hive Dwellers’ debut release, Get In, opting to go a cappella. While gesticulating elaborately, wandering the stage like a storyteller and swinging his hips, Johnson invited any “autistic, topless sociopath” to “Get in. Get in! … I’ve got a pidgeon-toed clubhouse in my backyard…Get in!”

Every word Johnson uttered, whether sung or spoken, was told like a story — as if he were wandering around at a birthday party and relating silly anecdotes to friends. After rambling on about saints, popes, miracles, and Saint Valentine, he seemed to drop his thin stage-persona veil, and for the first and only time, laughed with us. It felt like we’d won him over too, like we were all sharing an inside joke. For the duration of the show, we were all friends. We were friends with the audience, with the strangers in it and with our Ring Leader for the night, Calvin Johnson.