Written by Samuel Barker
Oct 03, 2012 at 09:00 PM
ImageAbout 10 years ago, Jay Farrar released a solo album. Being a big Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt fan, I reached out to the record label trying to bum a free copy of it. When the envelope arrived carrying that album, there was also an album from Varnaline in the envelope.

Now, I’m a southerner, so the title, “Songs in the Northern Key,” was initially pretty unimpressive to me, but I liked the way it looked. So, after listening to Farrar’s album a few times, I popped it on and loved what I heard. I became somewhat obsessive over the album. It captured everything I loved in music…seriously. The title of the album also captured the mood perfectly. I’ve listened to this album at least once a week since I got it over 10 years ago.

Varnaline was Anders Parker’s band. Though, on Songs in the Northern Key, it was mostly just him. He played guitar, bass, drums, organ and more. It ran from fuzzed out indie rock to reflective acoustic ballads to atmospheric alt. country tunes. Cohesive, but broad in influence…Like I said, I love the album.

When Parker took that album on the road, he tapped Texas indie rock band, Centro-Matic, as the backing band. It was on a fateful night at Rudyard’s that I was exposed to the Will Johnson’s music, as leader of Centro-matic.

So, here I am, ten years later. I had not seen Anders Parker since that night at Rudyard’s and had only caught Centro-matic once at Fun Fun Fun Fest back in 2008 since. Both had released a lot of material that I only had a fraction of, but this was an exciting day of music. Especially since Johnson had just released a solo album, Scorpions, and both he and Parker had collaborated with Farrar and My Morning Jacket front man, Jim James, on New Multitudes, a Woody Guthrie project.

To start the evening off, Will Johnson had an in-store at Cactus Music for the release of Scorpions.

A solid audience for a Wednesday afternoon had gathered in the aisles to get a preview of Johnson’s new tunes and, of course, Parker was on hand to offer some assistance later in the set.

Johnson finger-picked his way through the tunes including the title track from his new album and, my current favorite, You Will Be Here, Mine.  He stayed quiet through the first few songs until he realized he’d left a pen in his hat and told the audience how he thought a bug had landed on him. It led to a humorous tale on how some nights you have to block out distractions and focus through a song.

ImageTo close the in-store, Parker joined Johnson on stage to play lead for a bit, and then a 1-2 punch from New Multitudes. Parker started with Fly High, which sounded great with him and Johnson playing off each other. Next came V.D. City, which, again, benefitted from the solid rapport these two seem to have with one another. It definitely had me ready for the evening show.

I haven’t been to Fitzgerald’s in a long time. The once quiet neighborhood was now a group of restaurants and bars. Time changes things quickly.

Once inside, a few layers of paint had cleaned up the look, but it was still the same old place I spent the majority of my youth rocking out in. The show was downstairs, which added to the intimacy. A very enjoyable vibe was beginning before anyone took the stage.

Right at 9, Johnson and Parker took the stage. With a quick salutation, Parker launched into Fly High, which brought us right back to the end of the Cactus set. Johnson then played Bloodkin Push.

The interaction between Johnson and Parker was wonderful and the way they complimented each other’s songs worked to create texture.

However, at the end of Bloodkin Push, a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors broke out. Johnson went paper, Parker went scissors, so it was announced that Parker would take the first solo run of the night. I was not expecting them to do solo sections, but it was an interesting way to do the set.

Johnson went off “to check baseball scores” and Parker kicked into a duo of Varnaline tunes, Gulf of Mexico and Song. The latter has been a favorite of mine for a long time and it was great to hear it live again.

Parker also played two new songs. The first was a song he came up with after spending the night in a friends’ son’s room. According to Parker, he had the room he always wanted as a kid, which involved a lot of Star Wars toys. The next morning when he woke up, he saw an assignment the boy, Cortez Cole, had hung on his door.

The question was “What kind of life do you want to lead?” The boy had written 3 options with boxes to check. The first, a bad life, had no check mark, the second, a good life, had no check mark, but, the third, an epic life, was checked. As Parker said, this boy had it all together. With that, he kicked into This Epic Life. The audience, as well as me, greatly enjoyed the song.

The second new song, The Ecstatic Call, was “being road tested” by Parker. This is one that everyone in the room agreed passed the test. The lyrics were touching, the instrumental breakdown pulled you in and the delivery was perfect. I cannot wait to see that one recorded.

ImageAfter a few more tunes, Johnson returned to the stage for a double shot of New Multitudes tunes. Parker kicked into Old LA, followed by Johnson performing Chorine. Another great reminded of how well these two play together.

Now we were up for Will Johnson’s solo portion of the set. Having only seen Johnson do the solo acoustic setup at Cactus earlier in the day, I was interested to see how he would translate in an extended acoustic set.

Just like earlier in the night, tracks like Scorpions and You Will Be Here, Mine worked perfectly. The parts where you would expect the instruments to get louder and distorted translated as Johnson used the natural rattle on the frets to create the sounds needed. The quiet of being alone also displayed what a great vocalist Johnson is.

Centro-matic tunes turned up in the set and were met with cheers from the audience. Being a Texas band, the audience was well-versed on the tunes. I wish I had been more up to speed on all of them, but I did enjoy hearing Flashes & Cables. The audience sang along on the “Ba bada da dum” and provided one of those memories you smile about the next day when recollecting.

There was a bit more discussion during Johnson’s set between he and the audience. The unhappy move of the Astros to the AL was brought up, Johnson’s newfound addiction to Sour Skittles and a meeting with a curt Auburn fan. He also sent his song, Nothin’ But Godzilla, out to the Rice Baseball team, who invited him to sing the National Anthem before one of their games.

For those unaware, Johnson is a big baseball fan. He’s done a lot of painting of various baseball players from both the Major Leagues and from the Negro Baseball League. If you get a chance, you should definitely check them out.

To close the set, Johnson and Parker reunited for one more double dip of New Multitudes song. This pair included Parker doing Angel’s Blues, which was my favorite song on the New Multitudes album. The bravado in the lyrics lent themselves to the southern rock vibe Parker captured perfectly. Johnson went into “the most upbeat song you’ll hear about venereal disease tonight,” V.D. City.

After a lot of applause, Parker and Johnson came back for two more songs. The names of the songs are something I do not know, but everyone in the room enjoyed the extra songs. Over 2 hours of memorable tunes that saw Will Johnson’s fans snatching up Anders Parker albums and Parker/Varnaline fans snatching up Will Johnson’s albums. That is how a night of shared music should end.

Until next time, be safe out there and fight the good fight.