Had he noticed me, leaning in from the edge of my seat, grinning like a lunatic and mouthing to everyone I knew, “Isn’t he great?” Calvin Arsenia might have been tempted to file a restraining order.
I saw four of his sets and considered hitting a fifth, but rain and family commitments kept me away. Each time I saw Calvin perform, I loved his style just a little bit more.
He glides onto stage with a cheeky elegance and, from the tip of of rose-crowned head, through the pillar of his Rainbow Acoustic Electric harp, to the souls of his sometimes bare feet, Calvin tells stories.
His sparkly cardigan was once a sari, he tells us, worn by a friend to her sister’s Indian wedding. The roses he wears, and places, and scatters throughout venues are a symbol of his particular brand of resilience and beauty and a connection to his great-great-great grandmother, a former slave he honors in his song “Scars and Stripes”.
We happened to walk behind him Friday afternoon as he made his way up College Avenue on his way to his Lawrence Chapel set and, even then, running a little bit late and pushing a giant instrument, he moved smoothly and with grace.
He talks about his harp when he plays. He had been looking for someone to accompany him on harp, and eventually decided to learn to play it himself. The instrument cost him $30,000 and he raised the funds in a coordinated campaign last year, offering handmade jewelry, a Christmas CD and/or home concerts to donors. With its depth and range, Calvin’s harp mirrors his voice and the two filled every venue I saw him play.
He said he likes to curate each experience for his audience and he leads them into each venue with a trail of rose petals and, depending on the place, showers them with petals midsong.
“Would you like to participate in a magical moment?” his assistant asked my daughter Molly as she sat near the railing at The 513. “Sure!” Molly said, and she and my sister in-law Donna both accepted a handful of rose petals and dropped them on cue.
I’m hoping Calvin, who lives in Kansas City and had not been to Wisconsin before this weekend, comes back to the area to perform again soon.
Until then, here are two recordings of the same song, different venues, unique presentations but both really beautiful.
I didn’t get to toss any petals, but I felt like I got to experience plenty of magical moments at Calvin’s concerts anyway.