First off, the duo released what I thought were the two strongest albums of 2008 and 2010. West's "808s & Heartbreak" topped my list three years ago with Johnson's "That Lonesome Song" right behind it. Last December felt like deja vu with "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" and "The Guitar Song" at the tip-top of my heap.
But on stage last week — West at a sold-out Verizon Center with Jay-Z on Thursday, Johnson at a woefully under-attended Fillmore on Saturday — the circles of my Venn diagram merged a little closer together.
Both West and Johnson gave glowering performances, brows furrowed with focus. Both tempered that intensity (and their reputations for being grouchy) with lyrics that made me laugh. Both are stronger craftsmen than performers, but the strength of their material made their performances shine. Both are considered renegades, yet appear to seek the affirmation of their fans and the respect of their heroes with an almost noble desperation.
To wit, they both played tunes written for their forebears:West was in tow when Jay-Z delivered "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" and Johnson sang "Give It Away," a song he penned for George Strait. Those songs — along with all the others — felt intended to compete with the classics. And they do.
Speaking of the classics, both performers rocked looks that evoked antiquity. Johnson didn't wear a Roman gladiator kilt like West, but his hair and beard remain utterly Biblical.