Johnny A Driven
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Daily Hampshire Gazette

Johnny A., the blues guitarist who formerly played with Peter Wolf, performed an all-instrumental show with his band at the Iron Horse (Northampton, MA) last week. "Nothin' against singers," he told his audience. "I've just been working with too many of 'em."

A guy, a guitar and a passion:
Johnny A. Byline: KEN MAIURI

THE "A." in Johnny A.'s name could stand for average. I don't mean his guitar skills, because the Boston-based blues guitarist, best known for his six years with longtime J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf, was consistently impressive on his instrument at the Iron Horse last Friday. I mean his dude-next-door demeanor. He was no ego-filled star, just a guy and his guitar.

With roughly 170 people in attendance (and incense sticks on stage burning lines of smoke into the air), Johnny A. and his drummer and bassist played an all-instrumental set that included originals and original interpretations of famous hits, like the Hendrix classic "The Wind Cries Mary," the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" and Dennis Yost's Classics IV oldie "Spooky."

The band's mellow, fluid, groovy tone often reminded me of music you'd hear behind your local forecast on The Weather Channel. That's not a criticism, really; I mean, I've heard Miles Davis and Monk on TWC, too. It's just that the band's tasteful sound at times worked as nice background music. Yet it also could have been great dance music, and if the Iron Horse was more of a stand-up venue rather than a sit-with-your-beer-at-a-candlelit-table kind of place, I'll bet a bunch of people would have been up and wiggling to songs like "Walkin' West Ave." and a boogaloo cover of "Night Train."

The slightly shaggy Johnny A. sat on a stool with his right leg bent up and propped against its side, cradling his sunburst Les Paul, and used his other leg to play footsie with a board of effects pedals. He often favored a watery, echo-drenched tone (which may have been responsible for the Weather Channel flashbacks) and was equally deft at richly colored chords and fiery lead lines.

Again, though, his hanging-out, guy-from-the-North-Shore personality shined through. "A lot of guitarists do this 'shredding' thing," he said between songs, referring to the aggressive, show-stealing technique favored by too many guitar soloists. "Which is great, but we like to play a song." And with that, he gave a little testimonial about his love of songwriter Jimmy Webb before playing a serene cover of Webb's "Wichita Lineman."

Johnny A. came across as a music lover who's been listening to records and playing his favorite songs for so long that they've become part of him. It was almost heartwarming to hear him conversationally rattle off the history of who covered Willie Cobbs' "You Don't Love Me" and what albums the versions appeared on. And he told a story about when he was a little kid and his mom took him to see Hendrix play at the Carousel Theater in Framingham. The audience (no doubt full of other guitar players) sighed in awe.

Obviously the guitarist's been working at his craft for years, and during the Iron Horse show he snuck in some Carl Perkins-type country pickin' licks, cool Wes Montgomery style octave runs, and more typical wailing blues solos; his playing was diverse and light on its feet. And as the show went on, his backing band got more playful, too: Johnny A and his drummer in particular exchanged lots of giggling "nice one" looks, trying to keep each other on their toes with clever accent changes and extra fills. And vocals were never missed for a second. "Nothin' against singers," said Johnny. "I've just been working with too many of 'em."

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