by Brad Butterfield
John Craigie blended comedic anecdotes with folk music, creating a one-of-a-kind show on March 1 at the Van Duzer Theatre. Describing himself as ‘the love child of John Prine and Mitch Hedberg with a vagabond troubadour edge,’ Craigie embodies his own version of the American singer-songwriter. He avoids cheap recreations of the 60s and 70s, while making subtle nods towards it. Craigie has carved out an irreplicable style of concert that forgoes complex stage theatrics, instead emphasizing audience interaction and storytelling.
The Ballroom Thieves opened the night with Martin Earley on guitar and Calin Peters on cello. Taking turns singing, the artists wove creative storytelling into gentle folk melodies as the crowd filed into the theater. The set jumped between songs dealing with humanity’s endless exploitation of earth’s resources, the dark realities of being touring musicians, and even the tragedy of a parking ticket that the duo received recently.
Just before 8 p.m., Craigie found his way through the unlit stage to a modest metal chair. A moment of absolute silence preceded his first song, “Beethoven.” The song was hilariously self-aware with lyrics like, “I had a dream where I met Beethoven, and Beethoven told me that I wasn’t very good… I got burned by Beethoven.”
To an un-primed crowd the song could have shocked the room into a confused, murmured applause. But the loud cheers and hollers indicated that the entire room had long ago boarded the Craigie train; they knew what they were getting into.
“What has changed for the better is that I’ve been able to know what rooms and settings are most conducive to the kind of show I put on. So I can be in tune with my audience,” Craigie said, speaking of the evolution of his performing career.
While some musicians fumble at the slightest crowd interjections, Craigie bathed in every heckle that came his way, with only well-timed and creative ones earning retorts.
“What people don’t always understand is they’re buying tickets to see a singer/songwriter, but they’re also buying tickets for a stand up comedy show,” said student Carlina Grillo, who enjoyed the show from the first row. “Everyone in the theater was laughing, hard. He’s a beautiful songwriter and truly funny person.”
After hilariously recounting the time he performed high on oxygen, Craigie stopped to acknowledge Grillo’s clever sign that read “I <3 John Gravy,” a reference to a joke on his 2018 live album Opening for Steinbeck.
Craigie’s 2022 album Mermaid Salt builds upon his folk roots with a much more produced and electronic sound than albums previous.
“It hasn’t been too difficult playing the songs as they were originally written, but it was a challenge at first to try and make them sound similar to the way they came across on the record,” Craigie said. “It was a fun journey to see how I could marry the heart of the song as a solo piece with elements of the melodies and layers from Mermaid Salt.”
After quipping that conventional wisdom advises against a performer playing new songs onstage, Craigie began playing “Distance” off of the new album to a captivated audience. Exemplifying his ability to put universally relatable feelings into words, the song was born partially from the forced solitude of the Covid pandemic.
“I think that is a refrain I have said many times before lockdown. But it just felt so much more concrete when everyone was stuck at home,” Craigie said. “There were people I wasn’t able to see for years because of it. So it felt like a global emotion that I was tapping into.”
“Dissect the Bird,” performed at the end of his set, contains all of the ingredients that Craigie fans have grown to love in his music.
Lines like “I’m tryna stay focused and stay in the moment, but all I can think about is if my fly is open,” mix with, “I don’t trust a musician who’s always complaining, it’s hard out here but so is everything.”
Craigie capitalizes on the impact on the sentiment with his casual delivery, like an old friend would have after a long toke.
The Ballroom Thieves joined Craigie onstage for the encore song, “I am California.” The song is a beautiful love letter to the golden state, and received a well-earned standing ovation from the crowd. Cragie, ever the diplomat, refused to help settle the hotly contested CPH debate of Norcal vs. Socal.
“I feel like a yin yang of NorCal and SoCal,” Craigie said. “Being raised in LA and then having my formative years in Santa Cruz and Mendocino County, I know the good parts and bad parts of both. And my heart is loyal to the whole state.”