Jonathan Wilson’s recorded music carries a certain intrigue and vintage feel to it, seemingly created through a combination of his mysterious voice and tendency to utilize vintage-style instruments and effects in his songs’ production. His most popular song, Desert Raven, begins with a mess of analog synthesizer noise before breaking into the i7 to IV jam (excuse the music theory), reminiscent of classics like Carlos Santana’s Oye Como Va and Pink Floyd’s Breathe (In the Air). These guitar-jamming influences are consistently apparent throughout Wilson’s 2011 LP Gentle Spirit. By the time Rare Birds arrived in 2018, with songs like Trafalgar Square, Wilson’s sound had taken on a more technological edge, utilizing further saturated drums in conjunction with classic rock-era fuzz and phasing guitar effects and synthesizer sounds. These developments, combined with elements of his earlier desert acoustic sound come together to create something very special.
However, none of this layering in production was what I encountered in February at Wilson’s solo acoustic performance in Brighton Music Hall. Before the show began, an audience mainly comprised of couples in their twenties and thirties bought drinks and chose seats as pleased them. Already the atmosphere carried a mature, respectful environment. Wilson’s opener, Michael Nau, began the night’s music in an authentic, albeit curious manner. His songs were of the intimate quality that one might expect from a solo acoustic singer/songwriter, the catch being that his acoustic guitar was overdriven throughout his set. The tension that this created between Nau’s stripped-feeling vocals and harmonically full guitar tone is what I felt constituted his sound as an artist.
By the time Jonathan Wilson took the stage, the audience had already been well-warmed up to receive the good vibes to come. As an acoustic performer, of course, Wilson comes off as a natural. His feel for blending melodic lines in between luscious open chords (often supplemented by subtle harmonic tensions) creates a feeling of constant flow in his songs. This playing style combines with his haunting voice and floating melodies to result in an excellent performance. As a point of criticism, I would offer that the set lost a bit of its momentum and sense of consistent atmosphere when Wilson switched over to accompany himself on keys, but the overall performance quality didn’t dip much as a result.
I also felt that the space between each song elevated Wilson’s set in an unexpected way. His between-songs monologues were ridden with stories of his past, coming of age, and clear breadth of life experiences on the road. He mentioned past visits to Walden pond, complete with a reflection on the writings of Thoreau and other Transcendentalists, as well as one recounting from earlier in that day in which he mentioned a southwestern piece from a Goodwill thrift store that he found “too appropriative to wear.” He then put on a British accent to joke that “It’s stagewear, mate,” pointing to the extravagant outfits often worn by classic British rock acts in the 60’s and 70’s. I feel that these stories, as well as Wilson’s openness about his struggles and journey as an upcoming artist and touring musician, make his music accessible so that listeners can see a part of themselves within it.
While I can’t say that this type of performance is meant for any concert-goer looking for a ~wild~ time, I can offer that anyone who attends an acoustic Jonathan Wilson concert will certainly leave with a heightened understanding of themselves along with a great appreciation for his art.