Kraig Jarret Johnson & The Program’s Warmth Holds Blizzard At Bay

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There are those nights as a Twin Cities music fan that try your commitment as well as your driving skills.  Add in a Friday the 13th factor and you would be forgiven if you predicted that some of our fair-weather brethren would have opted out of Kraig Johnson & The Program’s album release party at The Turf Club.  Not to worry.  Some events just have a “gotta be there” feeling to them and this fit the bill.

The outriders of a freak late spring blizzard set the stage by bombarding St Paul with the proverbial “wintery mix”, replete with lightening, thunder and hail.  The sleet, which seemed the precipitation de jour for the early evening, blanketed University Avenue.  A discussion with the Turf’s door staff centered on whether the pea sized stuff was hail or just sleet on steroids.  Didn’t really matter; extreme adequately describes the scene.  It wasn’t so much whether people could get to the venue.  It was more a question of whether anybody would get home later.   

Fifteen minutes before opening act The Shackletons hit the stage there was little more than a fringe of patrons around the perimeter space.  Five minutes before the music began anticipating fans began to stream in the door until the joint was comfortably full.  I don’t know that I have ever seen as many people dropped right at the door as they scooted for cover in The Turf’s friendly confines.  You certainly didn’t want to be the guy who had the privilege of parking the car.

Before describing the night, it is only appropriate to apportion blame for the weather conditions squarely where it belongs.  A couple years ago the Campbell brothers decided to rename their band The Shackletons.  In part, it was an homage to the iconic Antarctic explorer who “was relentless…he’d never give up.  He even ate his dogs!”.  More truthfully, the name stuck because “Every time we have a really great gig lined up we find ourselves hauling gear through a f-ing blizzard!”  If you’re not familiar with this particular bit of Shackleton band lore all you have to do is peruse prior TCM show reviews.  Weather is a frequent visitor to the narrative. 

But in fairness to The Shackletons, each and every one of those reviews talk about while it was cold outside, the show was red hot on the inside.  Friday was no exception as the band of brothers hammered through a 45-minute set of originals leavened with a couple of very tasty covers.  The band is loud, brash, lyrically witty and built around some pyrotechnic guitar work from front man Colin.  Often the opening band is saddled with a crowd that is simply marking time until the headliner arrives.  On Friday The Shackletons brought along plenty of their own fans and they weren’t about to let the rest of the crowd ignore them.  If the job was to warm up the joint for Kraig Johnson & The Program, they delivered in spades.

Opening at light speed with radio tune 4AM, they immediately transitioned into a brand new, unreleased tune called Hometown Anti-Hero, a diatribe about the frustrations of trying to be heard in a very crowded Twin Cities music scene in an era where slick social media and targeted mass marketing dictate taste.  I remember looking around the audience and thinking that the kind of people who populated the club understood that.  The fans who showed up for Kraig Johnson & The Program are not the type to be swayed by popular opinion.  They were there because they knew the history of Twin Cities rock and roll and they like their live music served straight.

Mixed in with a rapidly expanding catalog of original music, two of the most engaging tunes of The Shackleton set were covers which were well suited to the occasion.  A wrenching rendition of The Replacement’s 16 Blue brought ovations both during and after.  A nod to early 70’s boogie blues with a nasty version of The Red Devil’s Automatic had the graying crowd bumping.  That song, in particular, provided Colin an opportunity to flash some of the scorching blues skill set from which he emerged.  Brothers Cameron on bass and 17-year-old Evan on drums throw down just as hard and actively add to the chaos.

All Shackleton shows are designed to close with a song that the band routinely calls “a very bad idea”.  They encourage the audience to sing with them and they punch the tune up about five notches.  Friday night ended with John Denver’s Country Roads.  As the band walked off there were early alcohol grins throughout the crowd as they patted themselves on the back for crooning in full throat: “West Virginia!  Mountain Mama!”

The stage quickly cleared and members of Kraig Johnson & The Program wandered on stage to tune, make last minute adjustments and chat with friends and fans who were now packed to the front.  One wonders how many people were there expecting to hear some type of Run Westy Run redux.  Or a Jayhawks vibe.  Or something in between like shooting star group Golden Smog.

Johnson’s new album had dropped earlier in the day.  For anyone who had the chance to review it prior, the expectation was probably that the night would be something akin to “all of the above”.  The genesis of the album was a stint in a rented house in the Joshua Tree desert with co-writer David Poe to find some inspiration and make some new music.  What they found was open spaces, expanded time and the occasional rock and roll lick just for fun. 

With no fanfare whatsoever, the band slid into the opening track of the album: Now Here Nowhere, a Quaalude swirl of muted colors and space.   In so many ways this simple opening defined the direction of the evening.  Not that the night was going to be all mellow or fail to tap into the band’s rock and roll pedigree but because it sent the message that beauty can sometimes be found in simplicity.  That one can be filled by inhabiting a place that is uncluttered.

A bit later I was taken by She Don’t Say, also from the album.  Once again simplicity reigned, three guitars delicately weaving beneath a repeating lyric and reedy harmonies.  Vibes reminiscent of some of The Kinks best sweetness washed through the room.  It was immediately followed by the next track on the album On The Silent Side of Town.  Certainly, there was much of The Jayhawks to be found here but I was struck by how much it echoed some of my favorite Crazy Horse material.  It was beautiful, earthy and lyrically drifting toward country.  However, Ed Ackerson’s distorted and beefy lead guitar work kept bubbling up through the mix to anchor the tune solidly in the rock and roll milieu.

Time flowed and at times the band veered more into a rock vein but there was always a strong melodic sense that kept the songs so damn easy to appreciate.  Johnson’s voice occupies upper registers and he never pushes it to the front.  It breaks and cracks and invites you in.  My notes reflect how I was struck by the fact that his is the rare voice that succeeds not on what he was born with but with how he offers it.  Be it Dylan, Petty or the aforementioned Neil Young, his is an American voice.  You relate to it.  You want to sing with it.

The pedigree and chops of the guys who shared the stage Friday was a Who’s Who of local talent.  From BNLX’s Ed Ackerson and his very unlike BNLX lead lines to David Poe’s Big Star type harmony vocals to a remarkably subtle and stable rhythm section comprised of Peter Anderson and Jim Pohlquist, these were the kind of players that brought out established stars and bookers from other venues to see them.  Familiar faces dotted the audience.  There is this old adage about being Musician’s Musicians.  It sure fit. 

From the spare and moody Kristine to a barreling locomotive ride in the rocker Freight Train or the peyote trip With It In Love, the band showed themselves capable of delivering at whatever they felt like doing.

In a show that was enjoyable from start to finish, one other new song seemed, at least to this reviewer, to jump from the stage.  If local radio doesn’t pick it up to share with a broader audience, it should be cause for revolt!  Only For Awhile marries Alejandro Escovedo type ringing guitars with Big Star harmonies, salted with the occasional Ackerson buzz.  Put the top down, roll down the highway and let the wind blow through your hair.     

It’s hard to overstate what an easy paced, peace loving vibe Kraig Jarrett Johnson & The Program were able to establish throughout their nearly ninety-minute set.  In greeting the audience before their second tune, Johnson set the tone by informing everybody that they were about to see what amounted to “a rehearsal on stage (laughs) Not really!”  It wasn’t that this gig was preparing for something else or that The Project wasn’t ready.  It was because zero attempt was going to be made to produce anything packaged, slick, polished or finished.  The night was more akin to sitting around a desert camp fire with a bunch of great musicians and a bottle of Mescal.  It wasn’t specifically designed for us in the front side of the house.  It was more about being invited to a friend’s place to share in the fun they were having.  You sat back, looked up at a sweep of stars, listened to coyotes warbling in the distance with the guitars and were just happy to be alive.

Talking with patrons as they stood bundling up to brave the howling wind and swirling snow that now constituted a full-fledged blizzard, the consensus was that the harrowing trip home was a small price to pay for such a wonderful evening of dyed in the wool, Minnesota music.  And at many people’s favorite venue!  From the youthful exuberance of The Shackletons, who were out to prove that they were cut from their very own Run Westy Run cloth, to The Program led by an artist who no longer has anything to prove to anybody.  It was a night to make music with friends and to share it with more friends.

In this world of over hyped, social media driven musical drivel, Friday night showed again that live music is a communal event that is meant to be shared.  It transports us far from storms.  When it is open, accessible and honest like it was throughout Friday night, we run into friends we haven’t seen since the last great show.  New friends are made over common sonic ground.

For those few who opted out when the early bands of a coming blizzard descended on the evening, you missed it.  Maybe you should buy a truck.  For nights like this one, it’s worth the investment.

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