By JAY N. MILLER
For The Patriot Ledger
Guitarist Johnny A. approaches his sparkling rock and jazz with a decidedly down-to-earth attitude, which helps make it so accessible to a broad range of fans.
His new performance/instructional DVD is designed to be much the same, an exciting view of some terrific songs done by one of the decadeâ€™s most riveting musicians, yet also with an instructional component that is appealing and engaging, and easily understood by any average music fan.
The Salem native has a homecoming with two shows Jan. 6 at the RegattaBar in Harvard Square. His new DVD, â€˜â€˜Taste â€¢ Tone â€¢ Spaceâ€™â€™ is already out in many music stores, and available online at johnnya.com
â€˜â€˜Usually the format in these kinds of DVDs is that the artist sits in front of the camera and introduces himself, then goes right into the demonstrations,â€™â€™ Johnny A. said. â€˜â€˜I was never really comfortable with that, and never comfortable viewing other peopleâ€™s DVDs like that, so I asked the producers if I could try and break the mold.
â€˜â€˜I begin with the whole band with me, and we play a song - eight in all - and then, with the producer acting in the role of interviewer, we go into the analysis of each tune. It is still instructional, but not so much like just another music lesson. I donâ€™t even know the questions he asks beforehand, so you get an honest response. Itâ€™s a more intimate, conversational way to do it.
â€˜â€˜You can also just watch the performances and enjoy the DVD, too.â€™â€™
Itâ€™s a familiar format for him. â€˜â€˜Thatâ€™s the way I try and structure my workshops around the country, when I might be appearing in a music store,â€™â€™ he said. â€˜â€˜My workshops are not pre-planned or scripted. Iâ€™ll just play a song and then open the floor for questions. Iâ€™m more of a self-styled and self-taught musician, so I really donâ€™t want to go at things in a purely technical way. Thatâ€™s not where I am, but more towards feel, phrasing, touch and tone, approaching things from a street level.â€™â€™
His grassroots approach has served him well, since the days he was playing small clubs like Mount Blue in Norwell and selling his first CD after shows.
That was only 2000, and a year later that album, â€˜â€˜Sometime Tuesday Morning,â€™â€™ with its sizzling originals and startling covers like â€˜â€˜Wichita Linemanâ€™â€™ was picked up for major distribution, leading to widespread airplay and a national tour schedule.
Last yearâ€™s â€˜â€˜Get Insideâ€™â€™ on the Artemis label, continued his formula with more originals and two remarkable cover treatments: Johnny Riversâ€™ old hit â€˜â€˜Poor Side of Town,â€™â€™ and Jimi Hendrixâ€™ â€˜â€˜The Wind Cries Mary.â€™â€™
Johnny A., who fronted a Boston rock band called Hearts on Fire in the 1980s, and later toured as a member of Peter Wolfâ€™s band in the â€™90s, found the eclectic approach he took on his first, self-produced album worked so well he need not worry about what category he falls into.
â€˜â€˜It is always a difficult business,â€™â€™ said Johnny A., â€˜â€˜and if you try to follow fads and trends and program changes, you find they all change every two or three years. The commercial success of â€˜Sometime Tuesday Morningâ€™ - made from my own muse, celebrating a lot of styles - allowed me to continue in that vein. I never expected that one to be picked up when I made it, so I made it about what I wanted to hear.
â€˜â€˜Iâ€™m planning on making a new studio record after the first of the year, and weâ€™re also bandying about the idea of a live album. We have begun scouting locations and trying to schedule engineers and producers.
â€˜â€˜I would expect my next record will have some diversity, like the other two. It might have jazz, rock, country and blues. I can mix up the rhythm sections, for example, use alternative rhythms. And lately Iâ€™ve been getting much more into ethnic-type rhythms too.â€™â€™
People attending a Johnny A. show can expect to hear music from both of his albums, and some new or unrecorded work, too.
â€˜â€˜Radio has been very supportive of me, especially in this area, with WBOS, WZLX, and The River,â€™â€™ he said. â€˜â€˜Playing some of those songs people know is the best way to get them acclimated to my live show.â€™â€™
He said he lets the crowd help determine the flow of the nightâ€™s music.
â€˜â€˜A lot of my show is dictated to me by how the audience is reacting,â€™â€™ he said. â€˜â€˜The vibe that comes back to you onstage is how the audience sets the pace. They decided in many cases what direction the set is going to take. We donâ€™t go on unprepared, without a set list of sorts, but where we take the songs depends on the energy we are feeding off from the audience.
â€˜â€˜The improvisational aspect is especially dependant on the fans; if theyâ€™re unfamiliar with us, weâ€™ll play a more conservative set. But if they know our stuff very well, weâ€™ll have more fun with the material and stretch it out.â€™â€™
He doesnâ€™t expect the RegattaBar show to be any less casual than most of his shows, especially in New England where heâ€™s best known. A staid and serious jazz artist he is not, and a shy and retiring crowd would be a surprise.
â€˜â€˜We donâ€™t play in Boston too often these days,â€™â€™ he said. â€˜â€˜When we do, we have so many friends and family who show up that no one would say it was a tight-lipped show. Weâ€™ve had great shows the last couple times we played the RegattaBar, and these folks have seen us lots of times - some of them back to the â€™80â€™s with Hearts on Fire and Peter Wolf. So they always make it a fun show there.â€™â€™
Johnny A. - At 7:30 and 10 p.m. Friday at The RegattaBar, One Bennet St., Cambridge, in the Charles Hotel at Harvard Square. Tickets are $16, available at regattabarjazz.com; 617-661-5000.
Copyright 2006 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Wednesday, January 04, 2006