More Than Shapes: The House Show Songs
In the winter of 2011, Victoria VanBruinisse came up with a crazy idea to invite John Roderick of The Long Winters over for a potluck dinner. He played a few songs, told some stories, and ate all of the food.
A few of those moments have been put together into a video collection called "More Than Shapes," named for a song and a story from that evening.
The "musician playing in the living room" isn't a new genre, but there is something special about this musician, at this particular moment in his life that made these performances feel alternately cavalier and humble.
When we asked questions John's answers were thoughtful and introspective, and he played songs with the attention of a musician who was as much reacquainting himself with his music as he was performing it for an audience. To me that relationship has always been the draw of seeing Roderick perform; the shared catharsis in the connection between a performer's desire to play and a listener's need to hear it.
So, yeah: this is another musician playing songs in a living room, but to those in attendance at a good friend's house sitting in front of the fireplace, it felt like more than that. More than shapes.
This project wouldn't have been possible without collaborating on visuals with cameraman Tyler Kalberg, and the audio recording by Zach Varnell, both of whom you should know from their excellent Notes from Home video series.
The big breath at the beginning of "Carparts" has always felt like the start of something big. Beginning the second track on The Long Winters' first album, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, it sets the tone for what's to come after the preamble that is "Give Me A Moment."
It is an expression of energy that never fails to jolt - either on the album or on stage or in a house surrounded by friends.
Scent of Lime
If there was one Long Winters song perfect for a slow dance, it's "Scent of Lime."
This was one of the very first TLW songs I ever heard, and it so perfectly encapsulates what makes John's songwriting so great. There is a grace in the restraint to these lyrics that makes their meaning universal; the plainest words ARE the finest.
Played toward the middle of the evening's performance, it was the moment when this great show in this little house started to feel like we had found something outside the real world entirely.
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
This is not a popular opinion, but I really enjoy cover songs.
Not all of them; in the wrong hands a cover song can be a crutch, or an awkward homage, or a flashy attempt at credibility by co-opting someone else's.
In the right situation though, a thoughtfully chosen cover song signals the turning point in a set like few other things can. It's a chance for a performer to say "this is what inspires me" without actually saying it.
This was the ninth song in the set that night, and before this I thought that the goosebumps might have been over for the evening.
When I watch this video, and when John belts out that last "try," I still get them every time.
When I visited Alaska in January, I knew one of the things I had to do was drive the Seward Highway. It was one of the most beautiful drives I've ever taken, and in the dead of winter the Turnagain Arm, which runs alongside it, is filled with hypnotically slow-moving glacial ice.
In addition to its beauty, the Seward Highway is also one of the most dangerous roads in the country - a combination of frequent avalanches, arctic storms, and narrow curves at freeway speed mean it is often dotted with makeshift graves.
This place is the setting for "Mimi", a song I couldn't help hearing in my head as I sped along that icy road.
Cover songs make great disguises. While everyone is distracted with the novelty, it's easy to miss when a song is expressing a deeper truth about the performer through a lyric by someone else.
I don't know how much of that is true in this case, and maybe none of it is, but I don't know if you can perform a song like Solitary Man like this and not feel it on some deeper level.
It's just an amazing song, and it's always been one of my favorites.
It was also my only song request of the night, and I'm really glad John played it.