by Brian Howe
Playing a solo acoustic guitar set at a crowded bar is a dicey proposition. But Chapel Hill expat Chuck Johnson—visiting Durham from Oakland for the release party of Crows in the Basilica, his new record for Triangle label Three Lobed—worked his six- and 12-string guitars like a snake charmer at the Pinhook on May 23, magically becalming a well-lubricated audience into rapt, respectful silence. Thus did I find myself sprawled out on the floor of a nightclub for quite opposite reasons than usual.
It was an especially impressive trick because the social energy level had been set high in an opening performance by a new, unnamed, prospectively ongoing band led by Mount Moriah’s Jenks Miller on vocals and guitar, with Some Army’s Elysse Thebner on keys, Mount Moriah’s Casey Toll on bass and Bowerbirds’ Dan Westerlund on drums. They slammed down a pair of long, stormy arcs that thundered through passages of heavy but melodic blues-based choogle, pounding drone-rock, woozy string-bending odysseys and chiming cool-downs. Meanwhile, the Pinhook bar did brisk business.
Yet the room, at least within a generous radius of the stage, went chamber-music quiet the instant Johnson touched the guitar with fingertips and thumb pick, his clear and silky tone captured in all its dimensions by three microphones. That’s not to say the vibe was somber—to the contrary. Johnson is an alumnus of Chapel Hill indie-rock pillars Spatula, and there were enough old-school scenesters in the audience that it felt almost like a convivial, Chapel Hill Class of ’99 reunion.
“Do we have to whisper right now?” Dave Cantwell bellowed between songs, chuckling, right beside the stage. “Silence!” Johnson shot back with mock fierceness. Such deadpan, self-deprecating remarks, humorously contrasting with his vaguely monastic visage and graying viscount’s beard, tempered the solemnity of rococo acoustic guitar music, in which complex runs elaborated themselves, recoiled and sprang forth again.
Johnson began with a nod to his local roots. Before the show, he had performed and given an interview on the program “Backyard Barbecue” at WXYC, the UNC radio station where he once was a DJ. He talked about seeing posters and graffiti dating back to his time there. “I’m a survivor,” he cracked, before launching into the first song from Crows in the Basilica, “Across White Oak Mountain,” in which a brambly melody slides through humming open arpeggios.
Video by Dan Schram
From that rhythmically hitching beginning, Johnson retuned and shifted into a duskier raga mode for “On a Slow Passing in Ghost Town,” with a wobbling howl persistently crying out from the low E string. “A couple more sleepy songs, is that all right?” he asked before playing the ominously lyrical title track of Crows, with that same heavy wow in the low end. It was the most overt manifestation of the tuning-contrived shadow melodies lurking behind the lead ones, their overtones lightening and darkening the room.
Johnson rounded out songs from Crows with “Wild Geese Descend on Level Sands,” a minimal 12-string piece he learned with world-music improv band Idyll Swords; a sweetly twanging tribute to Chapel Hill-born folk innovator Elizabeth Cotten; and “The Stars Rose Behind Us” from 2011's A Struggle Not a Thought. The last served as an encore after Johnson, standing just offstage for a moment during a hearty ovation, walked back smiling with comic brittleness and clapping along—a final moment of good-humored parody from someone who clearly takes his music seriously, but not himself.
Video by Dan Schram