Even though I was fully expecting Chris Johnson to come out with at least his big-bodied apple-hued acoustic, he was adorned with his banjo. And then the first few notes of “Safe on the Outside” rumbled and thundered — and plinked and plunked — from the outdoor stage at the Chat Room Pub last Saturday night, and I was transported to an earlier time. And I got sadder than hell.
First, let’s tip our trucker caps to Telegraph Canyon, the Johnson-fronted band that was at the vanguard of the hootenanny indie-rock movement of the mid to late aughts, here in North Texas and beyond. In a universe ruled by rowdy hip-hop anthems, nascent bro country, and neo-disco, the loud folk of the kind I’m talking about and that Telegraph expertly captured on its 2009 debut album, The Tide and The Current, was a bracing tonic, a sound that had all of the authenticity of traditionalism and all of the progressiveness of punk, which is why as a Violent Femmes fan in my teens I immediately devoted my pen and ears to TC. And my face. Surging toward the lip of the stage at Lola’s Saloon just to be blown back by this septet of young, stylish, often bearded Fort Worthians, replete with drummer Austin Green on the marching band bass drum, was almost a spiritual experience.
I wasn’t expecting transcendence at the Chat. And that’s not Telegraph’s fault. (Technically.) Times have changed. Life has happened. In the mid-to-late-aughts, I was a nightmare. Staying out all hours of the night, snorting coke with several other idiots off TP dispensers in handicap stalls, landing in the clink one night after getting behind the wheel loaded — I probably should have died 10 times. By way of offering a non-denial denial, or a non-excuse excuse, the entire city of Fort Worth was wild back then. This is true. And after the closure of the Wreck Room/Torch, the craziness merely sprouted up on the other side of town. The Where House was the sight of some amazing underground (and mainstream) shows but was basically four walls and a roof. Johnson lived there for a while. He also lived in his band’s RV. This was in the six years between Telegraph’s two albums. A divorce and extended stays in Colombia, San Francisco, and New Orleans (his birthplace) also happened to the thirtysomething singer-songwriter.
I wasn’t necessarily a Telegraph groupie, but I saw Johnson and company often. And I missed them. I hadn’t seen Johnson in a long time, having been reined in by life myself — in the mid-aughts, I got married and in 2013 my wife and I adopted a sick orphan from Africa. In other words, Johnson and I stopped bumping into each other at the Chat or Lola’s during happy hour. I always wondered how he was doing. As he was then, Chris Johnson is a friend.
When I heard a couple of years ago via my well-placed sources (Facebook) that Telegraph was back, I thought my heart was going to burst, but when I realized that I hadn’t seen the band — or Chris — in probably five years, and when I took account of how different, how much more carefree and wild my life was back then, and how old and mature (“mature?”) I now am, I got a little choked up.
I love the new record. Produced by Johnson with two members of dearly departed Centro-matic, frontman Will Johnson (no relation) and drummer Matt Pence, You From Before exudes gritty, intimate, thinly veiled darkness, lyrically and sonically. It’s a beautiful, subdued journey, and it should be mandatory listening for everyone with even the slightest inclination toward introspection.
I was most looking forward to hearing some of the new songs at the Chat Saturday. Because they’re good, and because the hundred or so other folks there deserved the honor. Also, I didn’t think I could stomach the early stuff. I had just spent the day with my wife, her parents, and my son. I had just finished doing what I always dreamed of doing back when I was partying like Don Draper on one of his I’ll-just-disappear-to-L.A.-for-two-weeks benders. “Safe on the Outside,” frankly, crushed me.
But I stuck around. And I’m glad I did, because after another oldie-but-goodie, “Shake Your Fist,” Johnson exchanged his banjo for his Jazzmaster to lead his ensemble — rounded out by bassist Chuck Brown, violinist Tamara Cauble Brown, vocalist Olivia Bruce, lead guitarist Erik Wolfe, and pianist Bobby Zanzucchi, in addition to drummer Green — through five super-tight renditions of tracks from You From Before, including the single, “Why Let It Go,” a KXT drivetime fave.
The crowd was loud and proud, maybe riding high on a full day’s worth of booze, maybe inspired by the grooving, melody-rich tunes. For a lot of folks, the event’s social component represented a bauble that couldn’t be ignored — I saw more than a few of them with their heads buried either in their phones, texting, or in other people’s ears, yell-talking. However, I also saw a couple of tween girls following the action onstage for longer than it took me to reach for my phone and text a note to myself: “Two tweens ENTRANCED!”
Johnson, of course, anchored the 70-minute set, presiding over the almost even mix of old and new material in his studied, utterly focused way. Instead of a baton, Maestro Johnson uses eye contact and nods. The tack is deadly effective. Anyway, any technical mistakes were subsumed by the onstage energy, the power ornamented and punctuated by a killer multihued light show.
Even though my wife and I were going to Uber, I could handle only one beer — I was drained from having spent the late afternoon pounding craft beers and multiple slices of the best pizza in town at nearby Chimera Brewing Company (watching my father-in-law’s beloved Fightin’ Texas Aggieees! almost blow an enormous lead), and the Chat bar was three people deep pretty much all night. (Trucker caps also off to Brad, “Tiki Dave,” Christian, and every other Chat Rat bartender for humping it. Hope you all made it out alive.)
A couple of days later, I texted Johnson, asking him how the rest of the show went. One of the things he said that has stuck with me was that they closed with “Light in the Field,” easily one of the most powerful, darkly uplifting anthems ever written or performed anywhere. Though I didn’t tell him, maybe he’ll know now: I’m kind of glad I left early. I probably would have bawled my old, mature eyes out.