Johnny A Driven
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The Zone

Johnny A. at the Grand Emporiun-Kansas City, MO 7/25/02
Musical Alchemy at The GE

The thing about live music is the surprise that's always possible when you see someone the first time, those nights when you turn the corner, walk through the door and get blown away. Exactly like catching Johnny A at the Grand Emporium July 25th. It was one of those weeknight shows moderately attended by habitués and hoi polloi alike.

Johnny A does not exactly carry a significant buzz, except perhaps among the severely obscurantist cognoscenti.

And Roger Naber always runs the same kind of generic promo stuff ("guitarist's guitarist..., "incredible performer", "...he's all about tone...") that Johnny A could be anywhere from deep red dirt blues to screaming psychedelic rose tinted guitar mania.Chris Duarte or Walter Trout or Adrian Belew or Robert Randolph?Who knows, unless you do some homework before you get out the door.

I coulda checked the web before I left the house ( check the link to a House of Blues concert!) but the lingering effects of the full moon rendered any practicality moot. So I’m on my way with no clue to what I’ll meet when I get there.

It’s obvious what the evening is going to be about right off: no microphone stands for vocalists, Johnny A sitting on a stool.We are going to get exactly what it looks like, straight ahead serious instrumental music, and nothing else, so don't ask.If you’re not into instrumentals, it could be a long night.

Johnny orchestrates the entire evening from his stool. There are no star turns, no shirt ripping histrionics, no pandering. He introduces the band, comments on some songs, noted that CDs were available, but he didn't once ask anyone if they were having a good time or if they were feeling good. He is so sure about what he is doing and that, yes, the audience was with him. No question what was going on, for anyone in the building. Not to mention that some of us were yelling our fool heads off throughout the show.

Johnny carries with him Rick O'Neal on bass, a tall, young man with his hair pulled back off his forehead in a half-ponytail, and Gabe Cabral, a slim and supple drummer. They are all good looking young men of composed and restrained demeanor. They all tended towards black in dress, no frills, first and foremost professionals.

They came, they were virtuoso, they conquered. Smiles flashed back and forth across the stage among them, and that’s about the extent of the communication they were so wired into what they are doing together.

They are all skillfully inventive players. On one tune Rick O'Neal pulls out a bass solo rapid fire machine gun style, slapping and finger picking, I hear sounds like Jaco in the house, the bass line ascending to a meta-statement of the tune. On another song, Gabe Cabral works through a very tasteful Mike Shreve/Santana style rolling drum solo that is a match for the 'Soul Sacrifice' segment in the Woodstock movie, but Cabral does it so melodically and succinctly.

Throughout the set O'Neal and Cabral nail the music down solid, highlighting and commenting on the tunes with subtlety and taste. There is no style or genre that these guys don't throw into the mix. They're doing "Night Train" in a dark and dirty vein, definitely not proper but definitely "Night Train", that old standard. But Johnny A's inventiveness and creativity have taken that usually choppy riff into an extended variation on a theme, single note tremolo runs, phrases that seems straight going in but come out somewhere so definitely else that when they turn the corner, I'm thinking, "Oh, right, now I remember, this is 'Night Train'…", and we take the easy ride home on a slightly different train, make it an elevated one.

They do "Wichita Lineman" with such a stately grace, delicately beautiful, bright ringingly clear tones that evoke the lyrics achingly, heartfelt, and true: "…Wichita lineman, still on the line....And I haven't been able to keep that song out of my head since!

They do "Walk, Don’t Run", they pull out offbeat classics that drive Barry and I into a frenzy of "Name That Tune". They have the room tightly held as they open each song, tease with the intro, mixing it up but never losing the nitty gritty of the tune, playing it not so much inside out but as if they were using Alice's wonderland mirror to read their chart’s. The way the tunes are arranged borders on symphonic composition. The music starts out with mystery and wonder, comes into focus like "Oh, wow, I know that...", and then moves through a redefinition of the tune until it becomes a completely new work. The intro, each verse and chorus, the solos, all conceptually hanging together, flowing from and building upon the familiar musical framework of melody and lyric. Each part is uniquely stated and diverse in style and execution, constantly surprising, especially when everything comes together in a grand resolution.

Johnny A is a creative soloist, but the invention starts with the first notes of each song, intentional and deliberate, drawing the listener into the unique structure of the arrangement. He gets your attention, then you discover where he is going with what he is doing, and then you scramble to keep up with the way he builds the whole song. It’s not just the technical virtuosity that grabs you, it’s beyond that. It’s the way he conceives, molds, and shapes the whole song.

Johnny A doesn't blow you away because he hits it hard and fast. He blows you away because he doesn't. He blows you away because he is constantly surprising as he restates the familiar in a way that makes it all new. He performs a musical alchemy, raising the base material to a higher element of musical experience, thereby touching and moving the audience in unexpected ways.

Some guitar players are noted for playing loud or with force, carrying a specific heft in their music. Johnny is much too subtle for that. Not to say he doesn't scream at times. He works that feedback, gets monumental, funks, gets soft and lush. He does all that but it is always in service to the transformation of the music. So it's irrelevant to talk about volume. Johnny doesn't use loud to make his point, he uses everything, even loud, to transform the music.

He's got the guitar player chops but there is more. He is a master of tone. That's what the promo says. Yeah, that's true all right, but there is a lot more going on! His use of tone is as immediate and precise as the way other guitar players bend a string. Tone? He's got all the tones, knows them intimately, and uses them precisely as another transforming element to the music, another nuance with which he inflects the song. I've never seen a room so collectively shaking their heads in wonder as on that night that Johnny A changed the music.

Bobby Carson, who opened the show, just sat down at a table and shook his head. He said he was going to have to reconsider some things after that. He marveled at the complexity of the harmonic chording (layman's interpretation) and the breadth of Johnny's tonal palette. Bobby does a good rendition of the Hendrix tune, 'The Wind Cries Mary', that is respectable in its understatement and execution while not being a slavish copy.

However, after Johnny A played the same tune, we all need a new book on the way to do Hendrix' music. If I recall, a gentle and mournful obbligato begins the tune in such a way that it only late begins to dawn on you what the song is. By that time, he has so drawn you into it his way that he just takes you through the marvelous experience of hearing Jimi's song as if for the first time, the unsung lyric hanging in the air, coming to life in the music, the broken boxcars and the sweeping up of yesterdays dreams a reality as the sound fills the air.

And tastefully, Johnny captures an essence of Jimi's meta-guitar sound without any excess of volume or tone, just through the inventive creativity of a master alchemist who understands what Jimi was doing so clearly that when he does it, you hear Jimi’s vision true but raised to another level. And that is saying something because, despite so many efforts, misguided and otherwise, I haven’t heard anyone successfully take the music to another level the way Jimi did. Jimi was a musical alchemist of a high order.

We had never heard sounds like that before that made sense in quite that way. Johnny A is a different breed of alchemist but he is just as surely transforming music in his own way. Maybe without the sturm und drang that accompanied Jimi’s ascent, but it’s an alchemy of import nevertheless.

The show was barely started when people started dialing on their cell phones to break the news to their friends, to get on down and get a piece of this before it was gone.

That's the thing about the performing arts: it is to be experienced right now and savored later, the memory lingering in the bones, the sound echoing in the mind. Even more is that element of surprise and wonder on those nights of discovery when something new blows through your mind and heart, like Johnny A surprising you with wonder.

Simply put, it was beautiful and moving. You had to be there to know.

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