MusicMusic Features

Simon Joyner

Singer-songwriter Simon Joyner has some miles behind him, but his odometer continues to roll. Starting Mar. 18, he began the multi-state “Living Rooms & Discrete Spaces” tour, which lands in Athens this Friday at Flicker Theatre & Bar. The Omaha, NE-based artist is excited to play the intimate confines of Flicker on the tour, as he is friends with the co-founder of the original Flicker, Angie Grass.

Joyner has been steadily releasing albums and singles since the early 1990s. His prolific, blue-collar approach to music has struck a chord with fans worldwide. I met Joyner in 1997, when he was on tour with the Mountain Goats. They stopped in my former hometown of Detroit, playing an intimate show at Zoot’s Coffee House. I remember him as a gentle soul, one that would fit in snuggly in a town like Athens. His music is somehow alternately comforting yet haunting—storytelling with an acoustic guitar instead of a pen.

In a recent email interview, Joyner explains the concept behind the “Living Room” tour to me. “I got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying performing, and I had to ask myself why,” Simon says. “The shows I did enjoy playing were always smaller and in alternative spaces or the occasional house show around town. House shows are more intimate, and usually the people are there primarily to see the band playing. I wanted to book a tour where the shows were all in houses or art spaces but were organized and booked as if they were in ‘music venues’ so I could have the best of both worlds.”

I’ve hosted a few Athens house shows, and my memories of house shows both in Athens and in Michigan are of dark, damp basements and ever-accommodating homeowners. To open your doors to friends and strangers alike, all in the name of camaraderie and music, is special, to say the least. Flicker, with its couches, popcorn machine and Johnny Cash tributes in the bathroom, is easily the most home-like bar in Athens. The familiarity between the bartenders and patrons, the lighting and decor, make it a cozy corner of Athens’ downtown district.

Joyner has received a warm reception even before pulling out of his home driveway. He’d never booked such a tour and wasn’t sure it could work. “I have been turning this idea over in my head for a long time, though. I haven’t done a tour in many, many years because I didn’t see a way to enjoy it and have it be financially feasible.” It wasn’t until he heard about a successful house show tour by David Bazan of Pedro the Lion that he believed it could be done. “The response was wonderful. It confirmed all my assumptions about DIY booking and the nature of grassroots organizing in the age of social networking. I was able to book three 11-day tours in the space of about two weeks. Pretty incredible.”

The wonder of Athens has touched many musicians worldwide, and Joyner is no exception. “I played Daily Groceries Co-op the first time I was in Athens, in 1992, I believe. Angie Grass worked there at the time. She actually made a video for a song of mine called “Vegetables,” where I was strumming furiously atop coolers and shelves with fruits and vegetables flying. I doubt that footage exists anywhere, but it was a real good time.”

At that time, booking tours was much more complex, he adds. “I was driving around the country in a Plymouth Valiant, booking shows two months in the future from telephone booths along the way, trying to stay on tour for as long as possible. We stayed in Athens awhile because we had a week of no shows, and I met Angie Grass. I remember skinny dipping and watching Ballad of the Sad Café at Flicker and singing songs on front porches in the hot night. Athens is a magical place.”

Joyner assembled a backing band, The Parachutes, for the tour. The band includes Mike Friedman on pedal steel and Aaron Markley on percussion and keyboard. “I think it’s weird to advertise a show under your own name when there are three people playing together, so I like to name the band and make it a legitimate thing,” Joyner says. “There’s power in naming things anyway. I don’t want them to feel like my shadows.” Joyner will be performing a set with The Parachutes, as well as a solo set.

The circumstances around the tour will almost certainly give this show a different vibe than other shows in Athens this weekend. “I think once people’s ideas about what a show is and where it can happen change, you can have these kinds of ‘happenings’ in interesting environments, and people will show up. It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in arty areas of bigger cities, but why not throw out the whole current model and inject some artistic life back into music performance?”

In his email, Joyner also writes what could be the quintessential statement about house shows: “The house show is ideal because there is no stage; you are really just on the floor with the people listening to the music. Everyone is there to hear music and have a good time. It’s cozy and you bring your own beer. If you drink too much, there’s a bed nearby.”

I shared with Joyner my memory of seeing The Handsome Family play at a house show in Detroit in the early 2000s. It was a late Saturday morning show, complete with kids and breakfast foods/drinks. The idea made him giddy. “I’d definitely be up for it if someone wanted to set up a breakfast show somewhere. If you know a good cook in Athens who wants to have an additional solo show at a house the morning after, we could always create an online invite and do it up. We could use the money and the breakfast!”

Locals Christopher Ingram (AKA Black Balloon) and Patrick Carey of The Ginger Envelope are also on the bill for Friday at Flicker. Breakfast plans for the morning after are pending.

WHO: Simon Joyner, Black Balloon, Patrick Carey
WHERE: Flicker Theatre & Bar
WHEN: Friday, Mar. 26