Standing on stage as a performing musician is likely daunting enough for anyone who is brave enough to put themselves out there. Imagine also tasking yourself with trying to earnestly engage and entertain an audience in between each and every song?
It’s a lesser-embraced style these days, but there’s one gentleman who has built his reputation and his career on the same kind of performances as those that defined the careers of the most famous proponents of the talking blues, men like Woodie Guthrie decades ago, and maybe someone like a Todd Snyder these days. That man is John Craigie, and he brought that style to Union Stage recently.
However, there’s something about John’s music that gives it its own unmistakable appeal and character — he’s a human blessed with the natural ability to place his graciously pointed voice into heartbroken introspectives, lusciously warm compositions and insolent tales-in-song that help him pull the listener into his world.
Since putting out his first album, Montana, in 2009, he’s released a half dozen more, plus two live albums, some cover albums, and has teamed up with notable musicians to create or record songs, including Gregory Alan Isakov, the Shook Twins, and more.
Watch the official music video for John Craigie’s “Nomads” from the 2020 album Asterisk The Universe on YouTube:
On Oct. 6, Craigie, who lives in Portland, Oregon, rolled into DC, where he filled Union Stage with tones and laughs on a tour that he feared would never come together given the challenges of the COVID pandemic.
But nevertheless, there he was last week, looking comfortable and handsome in blue jeans and a flower-stitched cowboy shirt, Hohner harmonic around his neck, custom-made Greenfield guitar strapped to his shoulder. And he led the audience through a healthy sampling of his catalogue while treating the sold-out space like it was his living room, speaking like he’d known everyone for years.
“I’m excited to be here,” he said, embracing the small space after having hit significantly larger ones on this jaunt. “I’m more excited than I was at Red Rocks, and I mean that. This is better than Red Rocks. People get excited about Red Rocks, but this is better.”
A track that he put on a live record in 2018, and one that might have taken on a more compelling meaning in this pandemic, he opened with “Dissect The Bird,” a potent example of his talent for writing inspirational, ironic evaluations of life’s challenges and then laying them on top of his own blend of acoustic guitar and harmonica:
“I don’t trust a musician who’s always complaining
It’s hard out here, but so is everything
You know what my job was before I did this?
I used to walk around parking lots picking up trash
Do you know how many people paid to watch me do that?
Zero, always zero …
You’re doing it wrong, dissecting the bird
Trying to find the song
It’s a miracle that you’re here at all”
“You’re the perfect amount of excited for a John Craigie show, which is not that excited,” he said early on, several people cackling before he even finished the sentence, some of the many laughs he’d pull out of the crowd with his relaxed, honest humor that can only come from having a hereditary gift for making people smile.
“My dad was a fun dad, always trying to be funny and making jokes,” John said, settling in, beginning to share himself, and if you listened close enough, you could tell right away that his act really isn’t a joke — it serves as vehicle for the emotion he’s collected through what he’s not ashamed to tell you has been a decent life and he’s certainly not afraid to let that shine through in his music.
Songs weren’t simply performed but given a runway on which to tell a story — usually a funny one — and he plucked songs from his intriguing book as he shared comical insight into his life on the road during his current tour, which saw him trek through the belly of the country at a time when the nation is politically divided, to say the least.
Selfless enough to be vulnerable on the road, but more like a central protagonist in a movie destined to escape harm scathe-free, the audience vicariously lived through the wide-eyed, courteous, harmless Craigie as he put them in stitches, elbow up on his guitar as he spoke or pondered any number of topics. He told of announcing in one midwestern state that he’d received the COVID vaccine.
“Hey, I’m not trying to be controversial, not trying to be a hero. I’m just a guy trying to go to work, alright? … “The boos,” he said, met with howls of laughter at Union Stage as he imparted how tough it is to 1. make a living right now as a musician and, 2. keep everyone happy.
“That joke just bombed in Idaho. Bomb after bomb. … But listen, if you’re an anti-vaxxer, I’ve got jokes for you too.”
He poked fun at the various levels of “lockdown” he and his friends in Portland experienced, and he was masterful and nuanced in picking on what he described as a community-wide competition to “out-lockdown” one another. Already winning with this bit, he made it a homerun, telling of a buddy from Portland who moved to Tampa and, in a matter of time, pulled himself out of the group conversations drifting toward “So what stage are you guys in now?”
One of the popular tracks from his 2020 album Asterisk The Universe, “Part Wolf” was preceded by a classic bit examining England’s view of America, “like some ex,” John described. A song that toys with “that American meanness,” Craigie set the song up perfectly before delivering a fetching, slick take on this track.
Watch the official music video for John Craigie’s “Part Wolf” from 2020’s Asterisk The Universe on YouTube:
Pulling some of the best from his widely acclaimed 2017 album No Rain, No Rose, he showed that, while some of his songs are decorated with fluttering piano, backup singers and unobtrusive drum play, they can be stripped down to what are likely their acoustic beginnings and that he can give them a beautiful sound all by himself.
“Rough Johns,” a track with an infectious roots snap, showed John’s power to build a roomful of rhythm with swift hands and his smooth vocals that could charm even the most impervious listener, and — again — with no band required behind him.
Stream John Craigie’s 2020 album Asterisk The Universe via Spotify:
He delivered a gorgeous version of “Michael Collins,” giving it a new light for anyone unfamiliar with his story — like he did before most songs, he explained its genesis, that his father was longtime friends with famous astronaut Michael Collins, and he added that his father passed away not all that long ago. Slipped in just before he started the tune, it should have put a lump in anyone’s throat as he strummed the first few notes of a song that has a terrific bluegrass strut to the recorded version but performed live, in solo fashion, generated a wistful, timeless sound in channeling the voice of the late spaceman who passed away in April:
“One small step for man, Jesus, Goddamn
22 hours hanging in the air
Sometimes you take the fame, sometimes you sit backstage
But if it weren’t for me them boys would still be there.”
The New Orleans tavern anecdote behind one of his most popular songs — “I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man” — charmed everyone in the room if John hadn’t with his charisma and humble artistry. Inviting his opening act, New England-based bluegrass duo Honey Suckle, back onto the stage to join him for the set’s closer, John showcased what resonated as award-worthy songwriting, with a chorus strikingly fitting for this time and place in the world:
“Never trust a musician who plays with their eyes open
All the good stuff happens when they’re closed
You gotta give yourself the shivers before you can give ‘em to someone else
So I wrote Mr. Tambourine Man and I left it in the dust
The perfect song is the song that you only got to play once
I don’t wanna be no dinosaur blaming the asteroid for my strife
I might’ve been born yesterday, but I’ve been up all night
When the apocalypse is over, I hope you like your job
Ain’t it a shame nobody sets anybody free anymore.”
Admirably casual in demeanor from start to finish, able to stay the course no matter the accuracy of his jokes — and to his credit, he has a high shooting percentage — the magic of a John Craigie show is everything he offers his fans, the window he opens to his creative process, his life, his heart. The evening at Union Stage provided an incredibly candid look behind the scenes into a fascinating life, one he’s grateful for, and he served as further evidence that a gentle delivery can go a long way — he had even the most reserved people in the room struggling to contain themselves behind their masks.
A tribute to his home state of California, John’s encore was of course one of his most celebrated songs, “I Am California” from No Rain, No Rose. Using his voice within a space that feels as large as the Golden State, John’s timing helped make this song as breathtaking in person as one might hope, with the lyrics carrying more weight than ever before:
“Yeah dig all my gold
Soak in my springs
Conquer my mountains
If that’s what you need
I am California can’t you see
Wherever you roam
You’ll always want me.”
Setlist (incomplete, missing three songs)
Dissect the Bird
Boston In November
Let’s Talk About it When We’re Sober and Not at Burning Man
Laurie Rolled Me a J
I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man
I Am California
Here are images of John Craigie, as well as his opening act, Honey Suckle, performing at Union Stage in Washington DC the night of Oct. 6, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.