Image: Calvin Johnson
Signing in at the reception desk of an office building and then taking a lift is an unusual way to arrive at a gig; that it takes place in an arts space high above Pilgrim Street, and mostly in fading autumn daylight, is even odder. All of which feels strangely appropriate for Rachel Lancaster’s set. This is the second time in a week I’ve been lucky to catch her, and once again it was magical stuff, the combination of programming, guitar drone and looped vocals seeing her occupy some shadowy hinterland between Grouper and Coil (especially when Lancaster began looping hisses and whispers into something decidedly eldritch and unsettling). After that, we got an hour of a cold-ridden but nonetheless banging Goa Flashbacks offering up some surprisingly tough acid techno – all squelchy 303 lines and tweaked hi-hats – with occasional lapses into more abstract sounds, and at one point something almost prog house, the stuttering beats notwithstanding.
Then the main event. Trying to explain to the uninitiated why Calvin Johnson is a bona fide legend often ends in listing his achievements, which for the most part don’t tend to convince the uninitiated that you’re not some wilful obscurantist. But, you know, fuck ‘em: Calvin Johnson is a bona fide legend. Tonight he was appearing in his newest incarnation as (“the revolutionary”) Selector Dub Narcotic, essentially a quasi-hip hop variation on his Dub Narcotic Sound System guise. What that means in reality is Johnson running some backing tracks from a table full of gadgets to accompany his utterly compelling and unique performance: un-selfconscious, gleefully wonky dancing and Johnson’s deep, carefully annunciated, almost schoolteacher vocals – equal parts rapping, declaiming and (on tracks like Every Woman), altogether more torch song.
Johnson’s performance is full of contradictions – his ‘flow’ and the backing tracks (veering from hip hop to Latin house jams and beyond) suggest a man both entirely immersed in and yet somehow at odds with the music he’s making, and his dancing manages to be awkward and yet utterly carefree. The lyrics are typically arch, as befits a project that is utterly in love with hip-hop but raising an eyebrow at the same time (“tango with your ego while your id gets down”) and between the increasingly mannered dancing, the intermittent flourish of his trademark melodica and some occasional tech glitches, the whole thing makes for a curious and wonderful spectacle, Johnson occupying a sweet spot somewhere between Iain Svenonius, Jonathan Richman, MC Paul Barman and Douglas Coupland unexpectedly finding himself in a nightclub.
Calvin Johnson remains a bona fide legend.