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Isn’t That Spatial?: Johnny A., April 12 at the Redstone Room PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 09 April 2008 02:05

Johnny A. As he prepares for his third solo studio album, the guitarist Johnny A. - who will perform Saturday at the Redstone Room - wants to return to where it all started nine years ago.

"I kind of want to get back to a personified version of my first album," he said in a phone interview last week.

I'm not sure what "personified" means in that context, but I'm certain there's one problem with that plan: It would involve returning to a time when Johnny A. was learning a new genre - the instrumental - and his fellow musicians were learning to play with him. That age of innocence will be impossible to recapture, but Johnny A. hopes to rediscover the intimacy of his first solo work.

A longtime sideman for Bobby Whitlock (of Derek & the Dominoes) and Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band), Johnny A. a decade ago decided to pursue jazz-inflected tunes across a multitude of genres with the guitar taking on the role of the singer in addition to being the lead instrument. "The guitar player is the vocalist, and really has to deliver the whole sense of the songs," he said.

It was quite a departure for a pop/rock guy used to a 20-second solo before handing the spotlight back to the singer. "I hadn't even been playing that style of guitar," he said. "If it was six months before we started recording, I would be surprised."

Johnny A.'s inexperience in the style is startling, because even on that first record it sounds as natural to him as breathing. He's virtuosic without being showy (or wanky), and there's a casual and confident elegance to his playing.

Johnny A. But when he began rehearsals in late 1998 for the recording that would become Sometime Tuesday Morning, the style "was an approach that was really embryonic to me," he said. "What made that album so spatial ... was the tentativeness of the style being under my fingers coupled with the band not really playing together for a long time, so not taking as many liberties with the songs when we went to record them. And there's some restraint that appears on that album that I find captivating. ... There's something that's not in the notes that sucks me in."

He wasn't the only one. In a review, PopMatters said: "This album is the very embodiment of guitar as voice. You get a wide variety of tasteful and warm sounds, with flavors changing to ‘soul' or ‘street' as a particular composition warrants, accurately capturing the feel of each song."

Others were impressed, too. In 2003, Gibson unveiled the Johnny A. Signature guitar. "It basically provided me with the hollow tone that I wanted but got me the percussiveness that I was trying to get off my [Gibson] ES-295," the guitarist said.

For 2004's Get Inside, Johnny A. crafted a fuller, busier sound - with horns and Hammond B-3 organ - and was more adventurous in his performance and production. His hometown paper, the Boston Globe, raved that "each song informs and punctuates another, and A.'s playing is crisp, precise, and extremely eloquent throughout. Unlike so many of his peers, the guitarist understands that the space between notes speaks as loudly as a blizzard run down the fretboard."

Johnny A. Johnny A. said he'd like the new record - which he's written but not recorded - to return to the spareness and simplicity of the first album, with space as its own musical element. "I really like the trio format," he said. "I think the newest studio album will be more of a celebration of trying to get the most out of the three instruments on the stage."

In the meantime, Johnny A. is prepping what will likely be a CD and DVD live package for late summer. "I'm doing this live project to kind of close the book on those two albums and move forward," he said. (Part of that is a function of his split from Steve Vai's Favored Nations label; Johnny A. is contractually forbidden from releasing new versions of the tunes from his first two records until July.)

The release, he said, will illustrate something that Wolf told him: "Live is live, and studio is studio, and they're two completely different animals."

That might seem obvious, but it was something Johnny A. had to learn for himself. "I had these studio recordings that I was pretty glued to and married to, and then I'd go out and try to reproduce them, and I realized that it was hard," he said. The obstacles included overdubs, house sound, limited instrumentation, and the quality of gear. "You need to find ways to make those things work live."

The result, he said, is that his live trio is significantly different from his studio endeavors. All the band members are doubling up on parts, he said, and "it gives the listener a completely different perspective."


Johnny A. will perform on Saturday, April 12, at the Redstone Room in downtown Davenport. The show starts at 9 p.m., and tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door.


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