Community and Contemplation: Scenes from Chris Ward’s final Johnny Brenda’s gig with David Bazan and Frances Quinlan
“This is an intimate business,” Chris Ward told me when we chatted last week, reflecting on his longtime job as as lead booker at Johnny Brendas that he just stepped down from. That intimacy shone through in his final show at the Fishtown venue, a sold-out Saturday night with Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan and Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan, from the crowd cozying up to the very edge of the stage to the casual rapport both performers had with the room.
Though Bazan’s set moved fluidly from song to song, when he did pause, he opened the space up to conversation. People asked him how his holidays were and he inquired the same of them; they shouted accolades from the balcony (“You’re so much more talented than any of us,” said one person), which Bazan humbly deflected, speaking of all of our untapped potential. He also went into extended contemplations about loneliness, and its way of incubating art; about the ravages of humanity upon the Earth (I wonder if he, like me, recently read The Overstory); he mentioned a pre-show exchange with Ward about drumming, and how “it’s a way of getting your non-verbal feelings out.” But as wordy and digression-heavy as his set was (which honestly provided a fine respite from his emotionally-heavy songs), it never felt like Bazan was talking at us, but rather with us.
Quinlan was the first artist onstage at the show, and had been billed as a surprise guest. The secrecy seemed, in part, to be because this was the first time she was performing material from her debut solo album Likewise (out January 31st on Saddle Creek!) and the first time she tested out her super portable new Ableton-assisted performance setup. (“It’s like I’m at practice with my whole band!”) It sounded terrific, though; we heard four new songs, along with several Hop Along faves, and the new material is some of Quinlan’s most hopeful; “Your Reply” was a Belle & Sebastian-ish romp with bright piano and a swift beat (“Did you like that? It’s coming out in a few weeks.”), while “Now That I’m Back” moved pensively for the first section before a stirring beat drop halfway through.
If there had been any trepidation about this set — as though this were the soft launch of Frances Quinlan the solo artist — she seemed comfortable and confident up onstage, which speaks volumes to the intimacy of the room. She reminisced about her time working at Johnny Brenda’s, her previous times playing it with Hop Along, and profusely thanked Ward for his friendship and support over the years. This was echoed by Bazan: “You’re a beautiful man. This is a beautiful place.”
Check out photos from the show by The Key’s Rachel Del Sordo in the gallery below.