When guitarist Damon Johnson was recruited from Alice Cooper's band to play in Thin Lizzy in 2011, he had no idea that he was also joining another band.
"The initial discussions were just about filling that soon-to-be-vacant guitar spot," Johnson said in a phone interview this week. "And that was enough for me, as a student of Thin Lizzy's music - not just the guitar players, but Phil [Lynott]'s songwriting.
"So it was extra exciting for me, literally the second or third day that I was there, [that] there was a discussion about wanting to write and record new material for a Thin Lizzy album."
Of course, there hadn't (and still hasn't) been a Thin Lizzy studio album since 1983's Thunder & Lightning. Singer/songwriter/bassist Lynott died in 1986, and although various incarnations of the band have toured over the past quarter-century, they were presented as a tribute to his work.
Enter Black Star Riders, which will perform on May 30 at Rascals Live and is the living, breathing extension of the original band rather than the museum piece that reunites periodically. Expect a set evenly split between Black Star Riders and Thin Lizzy material - including classic cuts "The Boys Are Back in Town," "Jailbreak," and "Bad Reputation."
Thin Lizzy still exists with founding drummer Brian Downey and longtime members Scott Gorham (guitar) and Darren Wharton (keyboards), along with Johnson, Ricky Warwick (guitar and lead vocals), and Marco Mendoza (bass).
Black Star Riders, on the other hand, features Gorham, Johnson, Warwick, Mendoza, and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso - the lineup that recorded last year's All Hell Breaks Loose and plans to begin recording a second album in October.
Johnson said the initial plan when writing songs and recording demos in 2012 was to "release it as Thin Lizzy. ... It was a real flattering and exciting idea, especially for Ricky and myself, that Scott and Brian ... had the confidence to really proceed in that direction - finally, for the first time in 30 years."
That the album ultimately came out under the Black Star Riders name is a sign of respect for Lynott's essential contributions to the Thin Lizzy catalog. And, as Mojo wrote, the new band's debut successfully paid tribute to its forebear without being beholden to it: "It may not eclipse past achievements but does point to a genuine way forward in a dignified and spiritual manner."
Johnson said that as material was coming together - written by him and Warwick, with contributions from Gorham and Mendoza - the band decided to see how the public felt about a Thin Lizzy record without Lynott: "It's really easy, with social media, to get some feedback from your fan base. ... For me, it was really easy to understand both sides of it. Selfishly, I would love to go down in history having my name attributed to a Thin Lizzy album of new material."
But the band decided against that path - which Johnson said he understands: "If I wasn't in the band, ... I probably would not have wanted to know about" a new Thin Lizzy record.
Yet Black Star Riders was the harder route. Thin Lizzy has a built-in fan base, Johnson said, and the new outfit was starting from scratch: "We'll get some of those Thin Lizzy supporters, but for all practical purposes, it's a brand-new band of guys in their 40s and 50s. ... It's tough to get a new band off the ground like that. It was a leap of faith for us. It was a leap of faith for our record company and management. ... It took a lot of belief in the songs."
There was little discussion, Johnson said, about whether those songs were too Thin Lizzy or not Thin Lizzy enough. But, he said, Gorham still had occasional reservations: "There would definitely be some times when Scott would be a little leery, like 'Wow, that almost sounds like something off of Johnny the Fox.' And we would go, 'Yeah, exactly. That's the point. What's wrong with that?'"
With Gorham and Thin Lizzy students Johnson and Warwick, the older band's classic sound naturally emerged, but the goal was also to expand upon it. "There couldn't be a more capable group of people assembled to write some songs that would further that legacy and celebrate that sound and style of music," Johnson said.
As a result, he said, "I feel like I'm getting the best of both worlds" - employing his songwriting and guitarist chops creating material for a new band while also being part of a 45-year-old group he first saw live when he was 15.
Black Star Riders will perform on Friday, May 30, at Rascals Live (1414 15th Street, Moline; RascalsLive.com). The show starts at 9 p.m., and tickets are $30 to $38.
For more information on Black Star Riders, visit BlackStarRiders.com.