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Effective immediately, proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours are required for entry to all shows at Union Stage. Click here for more information.
Sold Out SOLD OUT
Feb 20

John Moreland + Will Johnson

John Moreland,

Will Johnson,
Union Stage All Ages
Doors 6:30AM | Show 7:30PM
Ticket Type Price Qty

About the event

JOHN MORELAND

Over the last half a dozen years or so, John Moreland’s honesty has stunned us––and stung. As he put hurts we didn’t even realize we had or shared into his songs, we sang along. And we felt better. But there has always been far more to Moreland than sad songs. Today, his earthbound poetry remains potent, but in addition to his world-weary candor, Moreland’s music smolders with gentle wisdom, flashes of wit and joy, and compassion. And once again, as we listen, we feel better.

“I can’t dress myself up and be some folk singer character that I’m not really,” Moreland says. “I figured, I can’t dress up these songs and try to sell them that way. All I can do is be me.”

Out February 2020, his latest album LP5 proves John Moreland has gotten really good at being John Moreland––thank God. A masterful display of songwriting by one of today’s best young practitioners of the art form, LP5 is Moreland’s finest record to date. The album’s experimentations with instrumentation and sounds capture an artist whose confidence has grown, all without abandoning the hardy roots rock bed and the lyrics-first approach Moreland’s work demands. “I feel like just this year, in the past few months, I’ve reached a point where I feel like I know what I’m doing here now,” he says. “And I feel comfortable with it.”

There was a time when Moreland thought LP5 may not happen. Wary of expectations and his cemented status as a writer’s writer and critical darling, the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Moreland found writing difficult at best––and completely undesirable at worst. “I’m hesitant to talk about it because I know people don’t want to hear some dude complaining that his dream of being a successful musician came true, but there are things about it that you don’t expect that can mess you up,” Moreland says. “One of the results of that was I really didn’t want to write songs for a couple of years.” He pauses and sighs. “One of the ways I got back into liking music again was to let go of the idea that every time I’d go mess around with an instrument, I’d have to be writing a really good song. I just gave myself the freedom to go into my little music room every day and mess around with different instruments and different sounds. It doesn’t have to be anything. It doesn’t have to result in anything.”

Moreland points to that liberating rediscovery as a major influence on the sonic choices that shape LP5. There is no grand or alarming stylistic departure here––just different textures and background layers that add muscly new dimensions to Moreland’s heretofore instrumentally sparse recordings. The record also marks Moreland’s first time working with a producer. He chose Matt Pence. “I wouldn’t say that he pushed me into trying anything that I didn’t already want to do, but I think I came in with a lot of ideas that I found interesting but didn’t know how to execute. Matt was great at expanding on those things,” Moreland says.

For Moreland, falling back in love with music also coincided with an even more personal change. “This past year, I’ve been getting into mindfulness and being kinder to myself,” he says. “I was really on that wave when I started writing these songs. I guess it shows.”

It does show––beautifully. Album opener “Harder Dreams” is a clear-eyed confession, not of wrongdoing, but of disbelief in a life defined by unworthiness and threatened by damnation. Echoing percussive punches make the music sound like a transmitted message, fighting its way through the atmosphere. Punctuated by keys and fuzzy guitar, “Terrestrial” picks up on the same idea, and delivers the kind of killer line we’ve come to expect from Moreland: “As a child I repented my nature, till as a man, I repented my past.”

“It goes back to being kind to yourself,” Moreland says. “Part of that process for me was realizing all the ways I have been taught or learned to be cruel to myself or to hate myself through my life. A big source of that was church for me. They teach you that you’re bad and you have to repent for what you are. Now, I feel like I’ve grown up, and I repent for that––because that was a sin against myself.”

Slow-burning blues song “A Thought is Just a Passing Train” quells worry with the truth: “I had a thought about darkness. / A thought’s just a passing train,” Moreland sings. His gravelly voice, capable of both hushed devastation and rock-anthem growls, sounds more powerful than ever. “Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth” is both wry and gorgeous––a rare combination Moreland is uniquely suited to perfect. “I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground” unfurls into a plea and admission, while harmonica-rich “Let Me Be Understood” looks backward with new eyes and embraces enlightenment. Two instrumentals offer meditative pauses: “Two Stars” plays like a lilting acoustic guitar lullaby, while “For Ichiro” breaks with expectations to revel in mesmerizing keys and trills.

Moreland wrote “When My Fever Breaks” for his wife. He started the song when the two were dating, then finished it three years later. The track is a tribute to the trust and comfort that come with being loved well. “It took me a long time to write it,” he says. “It was hard to figure out, how do I write the kind of love song that I am comfortable with?”

Achingly beautiful “In the Times Between” was inspired by Moreland’s friend Chris Porter, a singer-songwriter who died on the road in 2016. Moreland wrote the song about two weeks after Porter passed, when the pain was still heavy and constant. Line after line captures moments Porter’s presence is felt––as well as his absence.

With its winsome singalong chorus and big organ chords, “East October” is a striking highlight. The song’s title nods to Porter, whose song “East December” reframed time as progress from east to west. Moreland’s song asks tough questions with tender persistence.

When pressed about the hard-won wisdom and peace that seem to define LP5, Moreland is characteristically both direct and humble. “I definitely am wiser than I was five years ago––I guess anybody would hope to be wiser than they were five years ago,” he says with a laugh. “But I do feel more mellow. Settled. I don’t feel as antsy or think I’ve got to prove myself anymore. I feel really comfortable and free to just do what I want to do.”

 

Will Johnson

Over the course of his quarter-century-plus career, Will Johnson has dealt with every challenge a musician can face. The silver lining, however, is that the Austin-based songwriter excels at taking bumps in the road and turning them into gold.

A week before Johnson was to begin tracking his fifth solo album, Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, he hit one such bump: His usual studio haunt, the Echo Lab”where he’s recorded solo work, albums by his beloved former band Centro-matic and side projects such as South San Gabriel”suddenly became unavailable due to a fire. Luckily, a friend and collaborator, Britton Beisenherz (Monahans, Milton Mapes) stepped in and offered up his Austin, Texas, studio, Ramble Creek Recording.

The last-minute switch was a blessing in disguise. First, the session now brought together both old friends (his Centro-matic bandmate Matt Pence, a pal of 27 years and the Echo Lab’s manager) and newer friends (Beisenherz, Ricky Ray Jackson, who’s worked with Phosphorescent and Steve Earle).

In addition, this combination of musicians ended up unexpectedly adding more depth to the album’s desolate, folk- and Americana-leaning songs. Anxious soundscapes”specifically, hushed harmonies and a melange of drums and splintered acoustic guitars”give “Hey-O, Hi” cinematic tension. Elsewhere, mournful, coyote-howl pedal steel wafts through the country croon “Childress (To Ogden)”; “Ruby Shameless” is a gentle, lullaby-like song with a chiming melodic backbone; and on the easygoing “Predator,” winking piano peeks out from layers of burnished guitar strums and sparking percussion.

“Having Britton’s personality and his fingerprints on this record definitely added more to it,” Johnson says. “At first, I thought Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm was just going to be Ricky Ray and me holed up in the live room, making a really subdued, largely acoustic, pedal steel-type of record. But it wound up turning into a more involved and layered affair, and one that was even more rocking in places than it might have been had we done it at the Echo Lab.”

The latter development is most evident on “Every Single Day Of Late,” which has a creeping sense of dread thanks to shuddering distorted guitars and rhythmically off-kilter percussion, and on the roaring, hurricane-like “Heresy And Snakes.” These moments might remind some people of Centro-matic, although Johnson says that band’s absence is more of an influence.

“When Centro-matic was still intact, my solo records were usually really subdued,” he says. “I would take them in a completely different direction than the cascade of guitars and feedback that we were really into. Now that Centro-matic is not in existence anymore, there are going to be moments where I just want to turn everything up and kind of go for it.”

On some level, his ability to let loose stems from his chemistry with Beisenherz and Jackson, both of whom added prominent instrumental contributions to Johnson’s last album, 2015’s Swan City Vampires. However, this approach also reflects his comfort level with Pence. Although Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm marked their first full session together since 2012, their creative and studio relationship always tends to pick up right where it left off.

That enduring connection especially helped this time around, since the crew only had five days to make Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm. Although Swan City Vampires was almost as economical”it was recorded over six days”that record found Johnson navigating both the loss of his mother and the 2014 breakup of Centro-matic. Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm is a different animal: The record largely revolves around fictional narratives featuring vibrant, well-defined characters dealing with “situations of tension,” as Johnson puts it.

On “Every Single Day of Late,” the protagonist finds much more than spiritual fulfillment after seeking out religious counsel, and soon becomes addicted to the taboo relationship. Milaak’s titular song demonstrates the anguish which often goes hand-in-hand with human connection, while on “Heresy and Snakes,” misunderstood Mazie May’s actions are perceived to be more nefarious than dignified. The keening “Filled With a Falcon’s Dream,” meanwhile, namechecks the ill-intentioned trio of Lucius, Timmy and Steve.

“I was in a mindset of exploring risky connections between people, and their willingness to look the other way and just go through with them, for the simple need of human affection and an almost devil-may-care attitude,” Johnson explains.

Still, he is a benevolent songwriter. For example, the narrator of “Ruby Shameless” looks at the song’s main character, a stripper, with tenderness and humanity; he sees her as a person worth cherishing, rather than a devalued object. Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm’s characters aren’t “morally bankrupt,” Johnson says, just dealing with a devil and an angel perched on their shoulders, whispering in their ears.

“I’m sympathetic to all of these characters, even though they’re flawed and maybe a little confused,” he says. “A lot of the time it’s good people making bad decisions. And they may just need some affection, and then will move on. It’s more coming to terms with, ‘I’m going to be alone in this world, and I’m okay with it. I’m totally okay with this solitary situation, and this empty bed.’”

As a solo artist, Johnson also knows all too well the balance required to navigate solitude and collaboration. However, on Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, finding this equilibrium helps him discover nuanced and intriguing sonic directions. The album ends up a thought-provoking meditation on what it means to exist in a world that often misunderstands (or chooses to ignore) emotional complexity.

This show is at Union Stage

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