It was a tough night for Freedy Johnston. But it had nothing to do with the fact that only about 20 people had come to the Center for the Arts at the Armory in Somerville for his scarcely publicized show. And it wasn’t just because his guitar bit the dust earlier that day. Rather, he was frustrated because he could not properly tune the guitar he borrowed from opening act Mike Fiore to play the title track from his forthcoming, long-awaited album, “Rain in the City.”
“I just want to do it right for the people,” said a visibly annoyed Freedy. After a few moments and a couple of muttered curses, he abruptly got up from his chair on stage, banging the guitar into a mic in the process, grabbed one of the folding chairs near the front-row table I shared with my friend, and plopped down in the middle of the audience. The twenty-odd of us turned around to face him, along for the ride, ready for wherever he was taking us.
Unplugged, he launched right into a spirited cover of Wings’ “Listen to What the Man Said,” which is on his covers album “My Favorite Waste of Time.” It was as if he had to work through the frustration that his guitar was giving him, and the only way he could do it was by playing a song, and damned if that same troublesome guitar wasn’t going to do the job for him, whether it liked it or not. As he went back onstage, he said, “We artists are not stable types. You may have learned that.”
If we hadn’t know this before, we certainly knew it by then. This was only one in a serious of magical moments at Freedy’s June 17 show, the first being the fact that he showed up at all (read more about my first near-Freedy encounter).
Inside the Armory
This was my first time at the Center for the Arts at the Armory, and it was a miracle I was there at all. The only way I found out about the show was via a posting on the Somerville Arts Council Yahoogroup. Really. Later on, I saw a press release republished by the Somerville Journal. But in terms of promotion, there wasn’t much. No buzz among any of the Boston music bloggers I follow. No posters around town — that I saw, anyways.
I hadn’t yet been inside the Armory. I’d followed the protracted construction process, the conflict with the neighbors over parking and other snags and delays. But the end result seems well worth the wait. On the first floor, there is a galley area that also doubles as a nice function room for a small talk, reading or film screening. The main hall, however, was truly impressive, and made me realize the building was much bigger than it looked on the outside. The high, exposed-beam ceilings have been coated in insulation foam that was painted purple. It makes the ceiling feel like a permanent sunset. The hardwood floors, brick walls and exposed air-ducts give the building a hip, industrial loft feel. Along the sides of the space, birch trees mounted upright on wooden platforms were wreathed in white lights. The audience area consisted of some folding chairs scattered around, with some cocktail tables set up closer to the front. The tables were covered by white tablecloths adorned with pictures of fruit. Imagine Club Passim in a gymnasium, and you’ll be close.
The folks running the show seemed a bit disorganized — I’m not sure how many live events they have hosted there yet — but they did not lack in kindness, graciousness and enthusiasm. Everyone received us warmly. There’s a bar, which is nice, and prices are quite affordable ($4 beer/wine, except $3 PBR, and $2 water/soda)
The intimate stage was set against a moveable wooden backdrop and made homey by a rug, lamp and some plants. As Freedy mentioned at one point during the night, it was nice to think that at one point the hall had been filled with guns and ammunition, and now it was filled with music. Indeed, the acoustics in the large hall were spot on. And that’s why we were here, after all. Not for an architectural survey. For the music.
We got to the Armory nearly a half hour before the 6:45 doors (I may have been slightly over-eager), which gave us time to take in the facility. But we also got to hear Freedy soundcheck. I even saw him briefly, looking at the setup in the hall. The knowledge that he was in the zip code assuaged anxiety I didn’t know I had built up — or had leftover from nine years ago, apparently.
I’m not sure what I was thinking — that there would be a line of people waiting to see Freedy Johnston play, clamoring when the doors opened to get seated up front? It was us and one other guy, some diehard who had seen him three or four times. The thing Teresa and I learned was that nobody else knows who this guy is. We would excitedly tell people about the show, and get blank looks in return. Oh well. It’s totally their loss.
“Thanks for having me over to your house,” Freedy said when he took the stage, seemingly unbothered by the small number of people attempting to fill up the cavernous hall. When I heard the notes from “Evie’s Tears” float out of his initial noodling, my breath caught. As the song, one of the best on his most popular album, “This Perfect World,” began to fill the hall, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was sitting ten feet from a man, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, playing a song from an album that had helped define a formative part of my adolescence. There were just about 20 other people in the room sharing this moment with me, including one girl and her male companion who seemed like an even more hardcore Freedy fan than me. I felt as if we were being told a secret nobody else knew and it was ours to relish, and if anyone else found out what they were missing, they’d be pissed.
After “Evie’s Tears, he played a couple of new songs, “Too Close to the Rio Grande” and “Neon Repairman.” Freedy then pulled out his cover of “Wichita Lineman,” which had inspired the previous song, before playing a song from “Blue Days Black Nights,” “Pretend It’s Summer.” Next up was a poppy new track, “Don’t Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl.” I started getting excited for October, when “Rain on the City” comes out on Bar-None. He then reached back for the title track on “This Perfect World” before playing two more new songs, “Central Station” and “When The Love is Gone (?).” He had tried to play the title track to the new album, but was unable to get the guitar appropriately tuned. Then he hopped back to another TPW track, “Cold Again.”
At long last, he played his one hit, “Bad Reputation,” telling the story about a guy who came up to him at a show and said he had played that song everyday while he was imprisoned. “If he did play it every day in the pen, I”m sure he got lots of death threats eventually.”
Hearing Freedy play a song is likely on my top 10 or 20 all-time… it’s impossible to describe. It felt like closure. It felt natural and right and inevitable. It felt glorious.
Sitting up front, I enjoyed studying Freedy’s mannerisms. He was conversational and self-effacing. Looking like a cross
between Dr. Cox from “Scrubs” and John Malkovich, he did this thing after every song where he would sort of sit back, lean from left to right and smile widely, exuding a blend of humility, graciousness, pride and happiness. A way of saying both “Shucks” and “Damn, I love this job.” At times, though, he seemed to wrestle, both with himself and the guitar. “No, you play it like this,” he told the borrowed guitar as he tried to tune for “Evie’s Tears. “Let’s try that again, Fred,” he muttered when he bungled a lyric in “Pretend It’s Summer.” It was a real joy to watch the way he works, a fine complement to the music.
After playing another song by request, “Remember Me” from the 17-year-old album “Can You Fly,” he re-attempted “Rain in the City,” resulting in the above-described moment. Afterwards, he took more requests, and I called out one of my favorite Freedy songs, “I’m Not Hypnotized” from the album “Never Home.” To my absolute pleasure, he agreed, and he nailed it. Next up were the haunting TPW album-closer, “Emily,” CYF’s “The Mortician’s Daughter,” and “Caroline” from the old EP “Unlucky.”
As the show came to a close, he thanked us for our patience and attentiveness, expressing his pleasure with the venue and, despite everything, the evening.
“That’s all I can do, is entertain you with chaos,” he said. For his last song, the third time was the charm, and he finally succeeded in playing “Rain on the City.” It’s fitting that, the next day, a several-day long rainy stretch began in Boston. But that’s okay. I saw Freedy Johnston live, after all these years. And that’s worth a few blue days and black nights.