Concert review and set list: Will Johnson and Anders Parker contain multitudes at Off Broadway, Saturday, September 29
Coming off the release of “New Multitudes,” their Woody Guthrie tribute album with Jay Farrar and Yim Yames, Will Johnson and Anders Parker had played casual but tight sets in living rooms and alternative spaces without P.A. systems for seventeen straight nights before Saturday’s performance to a small but dedicated audience at Off Broadway.
Johnson and Parker began together with Parker’s take on Guthrie’s “Fly High,” the sweetness of his tenor harmonizing with Johnson’s more gruff, lower register. The song set a subtle tone for the two-hour show where Parker’s sweet and keening vocals covered themes of height and flight, while Johnson burrowed deep into loss and desperation.
After two songs, the guys engaged in a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who would take the solo shift. Parker won the choice, telling Johnson, “You drove all day. Go take a nap,” sending Johnson into the crowd.
On record, Parker often goes into ambient, avant-garde, quiet noise full of loops and pedals. Translating that to one voice and an acoustic guitar should illicit some skepticism, which Parker destroys with his first solo performance, “Gulf of Mexico”. He abandons the trippy original where his vocals are a whisper under ambiance. Keeping his voice crystalline and delicate, he replaces the noise with warm and gentle acoustic guitar that highlights his lyrics and the strength of his voice.
Parker shared stories from the road, particularly of being inspired to write “An Epic Life” after seeing the homework assignment of seven-year-old “fucking badass” Cortez Cole after a living room show. The kid inspired high-reaching sweet vocals rooted by hard-strummed rhythms.
Parker nurses a broad spectrum of sounds from a simple acoustic guitar, sometimes all at once. During “Tell it to the Dust,” it chirps, jangles, and dips into thumping bass, sometimes all at once. It mirrors his voice, which slips from a deep whisper to keening in “Second Skin.” He goes solemnly quiet for “Horses Running Over the Hills.”
He ended his set with a new song he’s road-testing that ended with a guitar solo too structured and intricate to be a noodling jam. Parker veers into virtuoso territory, creating a single-instrument soundscape that’s imaginative without sacrificing its roots in melody and rhythm. He’s telling a story without saying a word.
Parker waves Johnson back to the stage and the two duet on Parker’s “Old L.A.” and Johnson’s “Chorine, My Sheba Queen” from “New Multitudes.” Staying true to the styles they’ve established for their set, Parker’s romantic optimism gets balanced by Johnson’s dark whispered longing. They go low and haunted, segueing into Johnson’s solo set.
Johnson could have filled his set with tracks from his new album, “Scorpion.” They flow from the same dark river as “Chorine,” especially set opener “Bloodkin Push (Forget the Ones).” He produces a deep tremble from his guitar to match the depth of his husky voice. He’s less rooted in melody and rhythm, going for ethereal and chaotic.
He quickly leaves his new songs for Molina and Johnson’s “Almost Let You In” and Centro-Matic’s “Iso-Residue,” morphing them into the style of his new works. He strips them of their pop spines, giving the former a hollow thumped beat on the guitar’s body, the latter a strummed staccato beat.
“You’ll Be Here, Mine,” highlights Johnson’s set, stomping a tambourine, his voice a rusty rasp that give unexpected turns to the lyrical meter. At one point he throws his head back, aiming for the ceiling, filling the room with a trembling howl that hits every nook and corner.
A bit of Centro-matic’s pop-rock guts creep into a track from the band’s next album that Johnson’s road testing, followed by the band’s classic “Flashes and Cables.”
Parker returns for another Guthrie song, “V.D. City,” followed with the harmonic grind of Guthrie’s “Angel’s Blues.” “We recorded this song in St. Louis,” said Parker, “so we’re bringing it back home.”
Which brings the obvious question: where was Jay Farrar last night? Sure, it would have been nice to have had three-quarters of the New Multitudes musicians on stage. But this was Johnson and Parker’s night to shine. They didn’t need any extra star power to do that. With their differences, they create such a beautiful, precarious balance, anything more would have overpowered their delicacy.
To heavy applause Johnson returned with “Nothin’ But Godzilla,” followed by Parker doing his old band Varnaline’s “Meet Me on the Ledge.” With that beautiful keen of his, he came full circle from the beginning of the show — in flight and soaring.
Fly High (duet)
Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming (duet)
Gulf of Mexico (Parker)
An Epic Life (Parker)
Tell It to the Dust (Parker)
Second Skin (Parker)
Horses Running Over the Hills (Parker)
?? – (Parker)
Old L.A. (duet)
Chorine, My Sheba Queen (duet)
Bloodkin Push (Forget the Ones) (Johnson)
Almost Let You In (Johnson)
You’ll Be Here, Mine (Johnson)
Flashes and Cables (Johnson)
V.D. City (duet)
Angel’s Blues (duet)
Nothin’ But Godzilla (Johnson)
Meet Me on the Ledge (Parker)