“Let’s get one thing straight:
Bob Dylan never played here
Joni Mitchell never sang here
Dr. King never preached here
This is a new stage
This is a new space
And even if they had
What would it matter anyway?
‘Cause the ghosts of the past cannot bring you any luck
All that matters is tonight
All that matters is tonight
And tonight all that matters is whether or not I suck. “
John Craigie is the definition of a folk singer. Craigie’s performance at Kuumbwa Jazz on a windy, rainy night in Santa Cruz, California was tailored very closely to his latest live release, Capricorn in Retrograde . . . Just Kidding . . . Live From . . . which is an outstanding representation of where this guy is in his career – right now. The songs are well honed and sharp. Craigie’s wit is humble and smart. Each story he told and song he sang brought his audience into an intimate space where the formality of a music venue disappeared and everyone was then in a living room just listening with a Sierra Nevada in hand. It is a genuine and glorious thing, and a tradition handed down from generation to generation , because for hundreds of years people have gathered around the folk musician, the troubadour, to commiserate over politics, hear their own thoughts given voice, discover the joy in satire and commune together in music that questions and makes light of their plight. John Craigie stands strong in a long and distinguished line of folk singers and he deserves his place.
Since the mid- sixties, the American folk singer has stood in the shadow of a giant. As soon as a folk singer gets up on a stage, straps on a guitar and clips a harmonica around his or her neck what do they become? What immediate comparison do we, as an audience, draw? Really there is only one name: Dylan (maybe Neil Young and Neil deserves the close second). It is that simple. Everybody does it and it makes sense, it has been buried in our DNA. A grainy black and white image of Bob Dylan with a beat up acoustic and a harmonica balanced at his mouth is iconic – one of the most easily recognized pictures in music. That’s got to be hard for the folk singer of today – standing up to that comparison night after night.
Additionally, Folk singers have the toughest job in music. There is nowhere to hide. They get up there, get set, step up to the microphone and then face the Dylan syndrome. There is no band to hide behind; there is no pedal board, or effects and there is no reverb. A folk singer stands up and is honest. It is all he has. The folk singer is all but naked when you think in terms of the traditional rock show. The folk singer has no choice but to either connect with his audience or flail through a set if he doesn’t. He does that through story, through lyrics and the honesty of no more than an acoustic guitar and harmonica. John Craigie handles all of these challenges by facing them down right out of the gate. He attacks the Dylan paradigm quickly but respectfully (It is Dylan after all). Craigie calls it out for what it is and riffs off the paradigm with perfect humor. He bashes that comparison into a thousand pieces, dismisses it, and draws his audience in with self-deprecation and humbled passion. John Craigie is a dude. Craigie presents himself as no more than that but he’s a tremendously talented dude with a guitar and a great voice that can tell a funny story. Craigie can follow that story up with an even better song. And this is just what he did in Santa Cruz. The opening lines of his first song, “Manifesto” just said it – he’s not Dylan, he won’t sing like Joni Mitchell and if you came to hear a sermon, it’s probably time to leave. He sang out that it is his generation’s time to make music and that if we let the great icons of the past dictate modern music it does nothing but stifle the creativity of those on stage right here and right now. He’s right.
John Craigie sings better than Dylan (don’t get butt hurt, even a Dylan hardcore will begrudgingly admit that Dylan’s vocals can be tough to take at times). Craigie is a smart and talented guy and despite the fact that he calls Portland, Oregon home, Santa Cruz has a right to claim his adoption (he credits Santa Cruz for his initiation into the music scene when in college at UCSC). When he thanked the crowd for the night’s sellout, he was quick to remind everyone that though this was a sellout he could brag over (as so many musicians do), he was quick to address a caveat: A sellout is great, but the truth is that no one ever follows up the congratulations of the accomplishment by asking about venue capacity. He referenced one run of shows that grew from one sold out night. A second night was added and quickly sold out and a third night was added. Apparently, Craigie thought, he was huge in Sedona, Arizona. But when he walked into the venue for sound check on night one, he was crestfallen with the realization that the room held a total of sixteen people. That did not stop him from victoriously announcing the three sold out nights on social media, however.
There were many standout performances in the course of the set, but “I Am California” had to be the real thought provoker. His use of a crying harmonica punctuated the lonely lyrics crooned out in his high tenor and these together crafted an apology to a beautiful place – one of the most beautiful places – on the brink of dark times. But Craigie’s lyrics twist and intertwine our own daily struggles with the state of our state:
“We struggle with our lovers
Don’t know what to let in
‘Cause the new ones pay for the old one’s sins
Blinded by your shadows, faded all your love
You don’t know how deep you are ‘till you get pulled back up
So drink all my wine, cut all my trees, make love on my beaches, smoke all my weed.
I am California can’t you see? Wherever you roam you’ll always want me. “
As the last note of the song sustained for a moment and then diminished into the ether, the audience was held breathless. At that moment John Craigie had more than connected with his audience, he owned their bliss in a beautiful and gentle way. The room was one at that moment. Everyone was in that moment together. Cheers to this guy and cheers to all the men and women out there that fight off the Dylan Syndrome night after night. Cheers to the people that continue a tradition that Dylan catapulted to mainstream adoration – to create music and spin stories that are worth not just listening to but truly contemplating because they are art now and one day they may stand timeless. That is the essence of art.