Opening for Jack Johnson at the Santa Barbara Bowl is a coveted spot, and on Tuesday, July 18, when John Craigie, a singer/songwriter currently based in Portland, Oregon, steps into it, he will be ready. The two musicians met when Johnson, on the basis of listening to a recent live recording, invited Craigie to Oahu, where they played a few gigs together. Although Craigie’s sound veers in a different direction — he’s more folk than Johnson, with roots in the American troubadour tradition — he’s looking forward to connecting with an audience that understands where he’s coming from, which is California.
Craigie’s latest album, No Rain, No Rose, covers a lot of ground and is loaded with great originals, but none of them will be more appropriate for his Santa Barbara audience than “I Am California,” a tune he wrote from the point of view of his home state. Hearing it, one wonders how it’s possible that no one ever thought of this before — to write a song that articulates the spirit of our state in the first person, as though California itself were doing the singing. With verses such as the poignant “We struggle with our lovers / We don’t know what to let in / ’Cause the new ones pay for the old one’s sins,” Craigie implies more than he says. Asked about potential political interpretations, Craigie agreed that there are “lots of layers” to the song, and he goes on to explain that “whenever you leave a good thing, there are parallels to all kinds of relationships. For me, as someone who grew up here” — Craigie was born and raised in Santa Monica, and went to school at UC Santa Cruz — “and who has lived here a lot of my life, I wanted to acknowledge the deep feelings I have for the place.” Perhaps that’s why the chorus has California telling Craigie, and anyone else who is listening, “You’ll always want me.” As for the subtext about California and immigration, well, said Craigie, “For someone who studies their Woody Guthrie, of course that’s going to be in there.”
The album’s title track, “No Rain, No Rose,” derives from a Buddhist saying that without mud, there can be no lotus flower. It’s a reflection on the way that life’s hardest moments are generally part of something larger and better. That’s certainly the case for Craigie, who credits his recent arrival in Portland, which is known for its roses, for the communal spirit that suffuses the album, which was recorded live at the old Victorian house he shares with several other musicians. Portland folk scene makers Gregory Alan Isakov and the Shook Twins make appearances on several tracks, and the ambience of the living room where the music took place survives in the quiet dialogue and soft laughter that can be heard between the songs. “It turned out that the tape had been rolling all the time, even when we weren’t playing, and we left some of it in the final mix so people could hear a little of what the after-party was like,” said Craigie.
Harking back to such influential recordings as Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and The Basement Tapes made by Bob Dylan and the Band at Big Pink in Upstate New York, No Rain, No Rose delivers the same kind of immediacy and intuitive ensemble rapport. For a taste of what this means sonically, try its eased-up, countrified take on the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” Or better yet, catch John Craigie live, as the opening act for Jack Johnson this Tuesday.