Saturday, November 12, 2005

Tender Forever + Calvin Johnson / Nanci Raygun, Richmond, Va./ Nov. 10th 2005

Red = hot Mustard = luke warm Blue = leaves me cold

“Calvin has two voices. If he carries on with a regular voice this means he likes you and will want to maintain a business relation but if he uses his deep booming voice this means he wasn’t comfortable talking to you and you should never bother him again”

This was my “official” introduction to Calvin. I was 20 years old and fresh blood from a record store in NJ. I had moved to the northwest to work for a small record label and task number one was to call Calvin at K to introduce myself.

I loved Beat Happening and owned the most of the K Records catalog but Calvin up until this point had been an out of reach / across the country idol; an intimidating comic book character of a man I was already nervous to approach. A more seasoned co-worker who used to work with Calvin was kind enough to prep me for our first communiqué.

The phone was dialed and Calvin spoke tersely. He maintained a Lee Hazlewood-esque rumble for the entirety of our call and I hung up in tears... absolutely devastated. The best indie rock prank of all time had successfully been pulled off and suddenly my co-workers burst out laughing.

Calvin only has one voice and it is ALWAYS freakishly deep.

Fourteen years later I still have no idea how to comfortably talk to Calvin. I recorded a handful of songs in his basement studio what feels like a lifetime ago and it was on my walk to his show that I realized this was last time we had seen each other no less talked.

Over the past 10 years very little has changed. Calvin is and forever will be just 100% Calvin. I don’t know how else to put it. He has always dressed like a 1960’s bible schoolteacher. His arms with a personality of their own explore his head, side, and the space all around him whether he is alone or in the company of others. His voice to this day cannons out random alto phrases that tumble into a conversation like misused quotes from an English as a second language slang book written by Andy Warhol and a boy scout.

Our conversation of small talk quickly ended as his opening act began chatting into the microphone from her position on the floor in front of the stage. The audience semi circled around her and Melanie Valera AKA Tender Forever’s verbose habit continued on and occasionally off for over 40 minutes.

A not so distant cousin to Team Dresch in spirit, her beat-heavy prerecorded sing alongs are the Le Car of pop meaning the songs are ultra compact. (She is also French and rather small in frame.) I can’t decide if her jumbled long winded rants between song are intentionally used to fill time or are a nervous habit but it did lead to an acappella version of the Different Strokes theme in French. As Melanie would say, “That was cool.” (She says the word cool enough times during her set to circle the world twice)

Tender Forever’s performance was energetic and passionate but she could stand to practice the mantra less talk more rock. I wonder how you say that in French?

Two events are often booked at this venue for the same night (one early/one late) and just about 3 songs into Calvin’s set of: man, acoustic guitar, and a bullfrog trapped in a well voice; he was told he was out of time*. Feeling just warmed up and dedicated to finishing his set in full, he offered the crowd a quick solution.

The small park across the street tucked between two buildings (A pregnant brick alley with sparse foliage and a couple of benches) would be home to Act II of his performance.

About 40 of us bundled up and headed outdoors where Calvin did just as he promised. He stood atop a park bench beneath a lit street lamp and the rest of his set was completed sans interruption.

A family of confused birds chirped madly and excitedly in the yellow light above our heads. Cars inched by behind us on a busy main drag with blasting stereos. Confused pedestrians coming from the parking garage and ATM stopped briefly to tilt heads and whisper to their friends. A campus police officer strolled by without so much as even a pause. Autumn leaves shifted impatiently from tree to body and eventually rested on brick.(Richmond loves its brick) Couples huddled. A few teeth chattered. Hands were shoved more deeply into pockets. It was nearly 11pm, beyond chilly, but listening to an often accapella serenade of mostly new (but not excluding a smattering of older Calvin material) in a movie-like perfect setting made this unbelievably special event all the more spectacular.

I can’t imagine how this appeared to an unsuspecting passerby. Here was a middle aged white man standing on a wooden bench strumming an acoustic guitar and doing something many non-fans of CJ refuse to call singing to a huddled but happy crowd of kids.

We must have looked like a crazy cuddly cult sponsored by The Gap and Goodwill.

I can’t think of anything more 100% Calvin.

* This is what happens when the show promoter stalls the start time of the show in hopes of a larger turn out.