Calvin Arsenia is turning the arts world on its head, and no one saw it coming. Every time we think we know what Kansas City’s most famous harpist is capable of, he bombards us with surprises.
This week, a few locals in the art, publishing, and music scene got a mysterious invite from the heavenly-voiced instrumentalist. We were sent to a secret location only disclosed hours ahead of time, eventually arriving in the West Bottoms. The event was black-tie, and the warehouse loft space was soon filled to the brim with fans dressed in their glitziest. What was happening? Why were we here? What kind of performance is this? But no one was able to properly guess the adventures that awaited.
About an hour later, the lights went dark and a film fired up on a screen. The short detailed conversations and interactions between Calvin and those close to him. Rather than including the soundtrack in the film, it was played live. Through the pitch-dark air, Calvin slinked throughout the crowd, his face covered in a feathery mask, while a piano jazzed away in the back with a violinist intertwining throughout the unsuspecting crowd.
Suddenly, Calvin ripped down a curtain, revealing an elaborate stage area and seating. The crowd eagerly filed in, looking on in awe at the lights, illuminated clouds, and flowery decor strung from the ceiling and crawling up the walls. In the middle of this stage stood Calvin, stoic in a long, sheer skirt adorned with flowers. Feather-clad honeys casually cooed at the corners of the stage like little baby Cherub angels. It was like watching a Renaissance painting come to life.
The star was an angel set against the clouds. Calvin, adorned in glitter and pearls, immediately dove into one emotional ballad after another, backed by a full band that included percussion, a xylophone, and a cello. Many of these were songs off his recent releases, and some were quite recognizable from his live shows in both Lawrence and Kansas City. But all were reimagined into a dream-like state. The strings and backup vocals were only one piece of this whimsical puzzle, as dancers and choreography blurred the line between fantasy and reality. Holding his harp the same way a rocker holds a guitar, he crooned on topics including love, lust, beauty, and about ten shades of sexuality.
His originals brought high praise from the audience, but the covers knocked it out of the park. His Bjork cover was not of this world (oh shit, is Calvin Arsenia Kansas City’s Bjork?!), and a Britney Spears cover was reinterpreted as an over-the-top sensual tango (with help from his alluring and mischievous violinist) that had him “collapsing” in ecstasy.
Every lyric and every movement of choreography were in tune with Calvin’s vision. Even the trains blaring through the West Bottoms appeared to change their noise as to sound more in tune with the performance. Much like Perfume Genius, this is a performer redefining what it means to be a star in the music scene. He’s pulling in every fascinating thought he’s had about music and art, and doing what so many artists find impossible– putting it into physical form.
While everyone else is feeling crushed by the weight of the world, Calvin is out chasing beauty… and he’s taking us all along for the ride. By the end of his performance, in Pied Piper fashion, he lead the audience back out through the small Alice in Wonderland-like entrance, only to be greeted by the final surprise of the night. His accompanying musicians had transformed the end of the show into a New Orleans jazz-band style finish, with the audience celebrating the elaborate night with clapping, cheering, and singing along. There were horns, strings, and even a guy playing glasses of water. The entire night was one big guessing game, but the fella in charge charmed and bewitched us into blindly trusting him for one splendid night that has set the bar high for local musicians. If this is the future of music, Calvin Arsenia is well ahead of the game.