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A Sanctified Review of Will Johnson at Frank, Formerly Casbeers at The Church



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We sat in what had been a Casbeers, and before that an actual church, and was soon to be the San Antonio iteration of Austin’s estimable hot dog establishment Frank. The upstairs sanctuary saloon, consecrated as the St. Francis bar, with its plurality of stained glass and elegant pulpit, hosted singer-songwriters Justin Kinkel-Shuster and Will Johnson, the former more a voice than a songwriter and the latter an enshrined Texas indie rock treasure.

Johnson, who is known to the half-literate masses as the drummer of Conor Oberst vehicle Monsters of Folk but who has been writing crushing songs of power chord-on-acoustic guitar for longer than most anyone can remember, sat amongst the faithful while Kinkel-Shuster played his set, nodding an understood amen upon the punctuation of a particular fervent line of lyric. But Kinkel-Shuster was the hymn leader, Johnson the visiting evangelist, his thumb in the Bible where his lesson would be. Toward the end of Kinkel-Shuster’s set, Johnson joined him on the pulpit-stage and the two briefly duet-ed before Johnson took over. They sang without microphones or amplification, highlighting the excellent acoustics of the former chancel. The faithful sat dutifully and worshipfully, with the accompaniment of cocktails, in what might be as near a secular spiritual experience as one might pray to attain.

Johnson was remarkably good in a tidy, effortless way. He less tried to be a singer than he had been born a minister of song. He gives the impression of a kind of man who never consults a mirror, never checks his phone in a crowd, always seems at ease and honored within himself and by his ideals merely by stepping out of bed in the morning. I've bought half of the seventeen-odd albums this man has written, over a fourteen-year period of my personal knowledge of him. While I recognized not a lick of what he played, aside from one classic track, "Iso-Residue,” and the new-ish single “Call, Call, Call,” it was the way his voice filled the chamber, more than any structure of song or turn of phrase, which so mesmerized the gathered faithful. My girlfriend beside me, who knows only of Johnson by mere osmosis and some of my own shower renditions, leaned over and said, dreamily, "He's amazing,” as though I had not attempted to proselytize her previously.

Cocktails and appetizers were provided by the Frank staff, and were everything we’d hoped they’d be. I had five Negronis myself, each increasingly flawless. The meat-sausage offerings looked particularly delicious and colon-cancerous. The girl with the vegetarian platter parked herself at our table dutifully as though we’d asked her to, which we had. Everything was tasty.

Details are scarce on when Frank will officially open. “Weeks,” was all I could get in response to my inquiry. Those in the know say there’ll be Spurs games on a big projector screen upstairs at St. Francis. Bands will visit the sacristy only of a special occasion. The fellows who own Frank – Jeff and Daniel ­– are legitimate decent human beings who seem to have made a conscious local buy-in, which is cool. One of them, Daniel, has even relocated to S.A. with his wife and kids. That they’re not exporting Austin, but discovering San Antonio, is the feeling you get.

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