Stranded on Home Plate
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: April 13, 2004
w/The Sleepy Jackson, On the Speakers
April 17, 8 p.m.
1600 So. 72nd St.
Will Johnson solo is a whole different animal than the Will
Johnson that's known among the small-but-loyal fan base of gritty, indie rock
When he's part of the Denton, Texas, four-piece,
Johnson growls with throaty exuberance, cutting through the dusty, shimmering
haze of electric guitars on music that shares a legacy with such great American
rockers as Crazy Horse, Silkworm, The Grifters and Son Volt. On albums like the
2000 breakthrough All the Falsest Hearts Can Try, and last year's best-of-list
fodder Love You Just the Same, Centro-matics' twangy ballads are undeniably
earnest and as a catchy as a hang-nail you can't seem to ignore -- and frontman
Will Johnson is nothing less than a rock star leading one of the best unknown
bands in the country.
But solo, Will Johnson's music takes the hang-nail
and rips it clean from the finger, tearing open his heart (and mind) to bleed
all over your dashboard in the orange glow of empty street lights. The subtle
approach on his solo CD, The Murder of Tides, strips away the rock-fueled
bombasts, leaving only Johnson and his solemn lyrics in their wake to roll over
you like an aching memory. He does this with that voice of his, that singular
instrument that's a throaty, raspy blend of Pollard, Vedder, Tweedy and Zevon,
and as memorable as any of the four standing alone.
"It's definitely different," Johnson
said of his solo show from the cab of his Toyota pick-up driving on an Interstate
about 100 miles west of Buffalo. "It's a little sparse and rather gloomy
at times. I'll just have my guitar and vocal going for the show, a nice quiet,
minimal set up. I might play some Centro-matic stuff, but I like to keep it separate
as best I can unless someone really wants to hear one of those songs."
said touring solo is not so much an escape from the road rigors of Centro-matic
and his other band, South San Gabriel, it's more of a respite -- a chance to refocus
his songwriting in glorious isolation.
"It doesn't feel like work
at all, it's like a vacation," he said of flying solo. "I don't have
to worry about getting to the city early. I can just show up and plug in. The
overhead is pretty low. Not that touring with the band is hard, this is just easier.
I can listen to records all day and reacquaint myself with making songs."
around alone also allows him to indulge in one of his more eccentric past-times
-- visiting baseball parks. While in Omaha, he hopes to check out Rosenblatt Stadium
and, if necessary, sneak inside. "I have a list of stadiums I've visited,"
Johnson said. "I love them. I love the architecture -- just the choices that
were made in designing and building a stadium. And I love baseball. It's a flawless,
beautiful game. The challenge is sneaking in and getting out. I've had quite a
few close calls, including Wrigley Field."
overhead is pretty low. Not that touring with the band is hard, this is just easier."
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I get home, I'll isolate myself for three or four days and record as much of it
as possible. It's like flood gates opening."
far, his extracurricular activities have kept him from getting as much writing
done as he'd like. Notorious as a prolific songwriter, Johnson recently finished
a follow-up solo effort to 2002's Murder of Tides, which should be released
later this year, and plans on entering the studio to record the next South San
Gabriel CD in June.
For Johnson, the writing process is ongoing, and inspiration
can strike almost anywhere. "If I'm driving, I'll make notes on a napkin
on the steering wheel and keep a micro-cassette recorder nearby so if a melody
pops in my head I'll jump on it," he said. "After I get home, I'll isolate
myself for three or four days and record as much of it as possible. It's like
flood gates opening."
Johnson has been relegated to the opening slot
for Saturday night's Ranch Bowl gig, a place reserved for new acts and unknowns,
even though Centro-matic is one of the most well-respected bands among critics
and in-the-know indie music fans. Is it frustrating that his band continues to
fly under the radar?
"Not really, because we've all been friends for
a long time and really enjoy hanging out together," he said. "You want
to play to more than 11 people on a Monday night in Iowa City, but sometimes that's
the way the cards fall. Those 11 people paid money to see you, same as the 200
who showed up in Chicago and New York. You play the show and make the most of
in The Omaha Reader April 14, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.