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Four in tow 

Chesnutt, Eitzel, Bazan and Johnson are the Undertow Orchestra

I remember hearing Will Johnson for the first time in late October 2002, opening for ousted Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett and his longtime collaborator Edward Burch at Kings in Raleigh. He was fronting his four-piece Texas rock band Centro-matic, a rugged, doleful machine, moving slowly and deliberately.

At that point, Centro-matic was good, but Johnson was already someone to be reckoned with and heard. I immediately bought his sole solo album, Murder of Tides,and memorized every crevice in his aching voice and jagged acoustic guitar lines.

Bob Andrews, co-founder of Undertow Records and head of Undertow Management, knows how that feels.

"This sounds like I'm making it up, but Will Johnson is my favorite songwriter in the world. He breaks my heart and makes me smile," says Andrews from Chicago, where he manages Johnson and several other rock bands. Andrews organized the Undertow Orchestra--Johnson, Vic Chesnutt, Mark Eitzel and David Bazan, singing their songs and backing each other up--because he had the desire to see four of his favorite songwriters (and clients) perform together. Besides that, the four principals of the Undertow Orchestra have little connection as a whole. But each of them does recall watershed moments with at least one other songwriter on the tour.

"I can't remember any of Mark's particular lines, but I just know how shocked I was that every damn line was so great," recalls Chesnutt, at home in Athens a week before the other writers and Centro-matic guitarist Scott Danbom join him to start rehearsals for a 20-show run.

When asked to pick one of the three other songwriters and his material for discussion, they all jump at the chance. Denton, Texas' Johnson--who talks with the same crackle with which he sings--decides on Bazan of Pedro the Lion.

"I had been setting up to play a show in Kansas City at The Hurricane in 2001, and the music coming over the PA was very engaging. I asked the sound guy, you know, 'Who is this? What's going on here?' He said that it was Pedro the Lion, and I was smitten with the band and with David Bazan from that moment. When we finished that tour, I went out and bought the two or three Pedro records this store in Denton had, and I've been a fan ever since. I'm kind of a completist with his records. It was a very transient moment, becoming smitten like that when you're setting up an amplifier and running into a beer-soaked table."

Bazan, at home in Seattle, reciprocates. At the moment, Bazan is a man without a band: Pedro the Lion recently called it quits, and his electronic project, Headphones, is--more or less--a solo project with a drummer. This new expedition seems to have strengthened his appreciation of Johnson, who goes at it alone as well as he does with a band.

"Bob Andrews gave me a Centro-matic record and I really liked the band, but the thing that really got me was his voice. It was so full of emotion and I could understand exactly where he was coming from. Lots of it sounded sad without actually being sad. It was just emotional. But I went to a show with Tim Walsh from Pedro the Lion and saw him in Seattle , and I introduced myself. We've only seen each other a few times since, but I am really excited to be doing this tour with him. It's just really inspiring to know how serious he is about his music. I mean, the thought of this guy sitting in his house and recording all of these songs on a four-track all of the time when his band isn't working makes me feel kind of guilty, maybe lazy."

Chesnutt echoes the intimidation as inspiration that Bazan offers. "I'm terrified," he says after a discussion of Eitzel. "What if they all hate me?"

"I think the first time I ever really listened to Mark was when I saw him actually play. I had heard him on college radio and I had heard American Music Club at parties, but I saw Mark play somewhere. Seeing and hearing Mark's songs made me recognize a strain of my own writing more, and try to not shy away from that part--I think a more transparent narrative kind of lyric as opposed to coded and guarded songs I was writing.... Let's see, which Mark song am I most looking forward to playing on during the tour? Oh, the song about the rat. It's a new one, but it's a typical Mark punk rock vignette on the punk rock heart."

Eitzel gets to Athens from California for a solitary week of band practice close to midnight on Thursday. At noon on Friday, he's still sleeping. All five musicians were awake until 5 a.m. the night before, fast becoming friends. Eitzel and Chesnutt are old friends, and Eitzel has plenty to say about his pal's craft.

"Vic is a genius. I've been following him for years and years mostly because I've never known a songwriter that used language in such a free way. There's sweetness mixed with a real anger in his music, and I love that. It inspires me to write, and the songwriting I like the most is the songwriting that makes me want to work." x

The Undertow Orchestra plays the second show of its tour at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Thursday, Feb. 9. The show starts at 8:30 p.m., and tickets run $12 in advance and $14 at the door.

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