Johnny A Driven
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A. plus: Rockin' Hub guitarist, releases first solo CD and shows he's not a Johnny-come-lately
by Larry Katz 
Wednesday, January 19, 2000

It's easy to take local musicians for granted. That would be a mistake.

Consider the case of guitarist Johnny A., appearing tonight at the House of Blues. He's led several Boston bands including Hearts on Fire and Johnny A.'s Hidden Secret. His closest brush to the big time came with his mid-'90s stint touring and recording with Peter Wolf's Houseparty 5. Lately he's spent more hours at home in Salem than rubbing elbows with rock stars.

Now, A. has released his first solo CD ``Sometime Tuesday Morning.'' It's an all-instrumental set.

That's right: a guitar album. Without hearing a note, most people figure it's a Johnny-come-lately attempt to stake a claim as another fast-fingered, volume-cranking rock guitar god. You'll pass, right?

That would be a mistake, too.

``Most people are totally taken by surprise by the type of record it is,'' A. says over lunch at Legal Sea Foods. ``They say, `I didn't realize you could play that style or do this or do that.' I've had a rocking blues career, so to do stuff that's more subtle catches them off guard.

``I've been influenced by a lot of different styles of music and a lot of different guitar players, everyone from Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison and Jeff Beck to Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino. For my first CD, I wanted to get into the studio and do something that excites me. That's all. I just did something I wanted to do for a change.''

What makes ``Sometime Tuesday Morning'' such a treat is that you don't have to be a guitar nut to love it. Sure, A. does a bit of flashy picking. But never too much. He focuses on telling a story instead - or what you might call creating a song without words.

``I'm influenced by songwriters as much as guitar players,'' A. says. ``I've always been a sucker for a really good pop song. I didn't make a guitar record to be a shredder's paradise, where you solo all over the place. The songs are set up with a pop sensibility with verses, choruses and a bridge. It's not about guitar solos, it's about the guitar being a voice.''

And A. has a voice all his own. On ``Sometime Tuesday Morning,'' he relies on a distinctive light touch, an expressive tone and a melodic sense that can be as soulful or playful as called for.

The path to making ``Sometime Tuesday Morning'' wasn't easy. After parting with J. Geils frontman Wolf, the Malden- and Saugus-raised A. found and subsequently lost a job in an audio store. The long-ago Berklee College of Music student found himself with enough time on his hands to belatedly learn something he had avoided previously: how to read music.

``I was definitely frustrated with where I was musically,'' he says. ``There was nothing going on. I was trying to put together an instrumental thing, but it wasn't coming together. So I pulled out this book someone gave me a long time ago and started to learn to read (music). I was reading from piano charts without realizing it and a lot of the chordal stuff on the record came from that.

``Then I started thinking about how I always dug going into a lounge and seeing a guy at the piano bar who could make you feel a whole song without saying or singing a word. From there it snowballed. I had a definite focus. I wanted a warm-sounding record, not a brash one. I wanted one with a mood.''

Recorded with his wonderfully empathetic rhythm section of bassist Ed Spargo and drummer Craig MacIntyre, ``Sometime Tuesday Morning'' is certainly warm and sometimes mellow. But it's not lounge music, even if the opening title cut does evoke the mysterious atmosphere of a classic film noir. From there, A. shifts gears into the rockabilly flavor of another original, ``Oh Yeah,'' before serving up a delicate ``Wichita Lineman,'' one of four cover songs.

``I picked songs to cover that left a mark on me as a kid,'' he says. `` `Yes It Is' is a Beatles' song that nobody covers and I say, why not? `You Don't Love Me' is my own twist on the blues and a way of doing a tribute to Mike Bloomfield, who did it on `Supersession.' `Walk Don't Run' is one of those great surf guitar songs. I do it with a little south-of-the-border vibe. It's a tune that's stayed with me. Kinda like pajamas.'' He says, laughing. ``I've been wearing them all my life.''

A. realizes that an instrumental trio album, even one as enjoyable as ``Sometime Tuesday Morning,'' is a tough sell. Does he think there's an audience for grownup guitar rock?

``I don't have stars in my eyes,'' A. says. ``I don't expect to sell quadruple platinum. But I would like to be able to pay my mortgage playing the guitar. At this stage, you'd think I'd be able to.''

-Larry Katz

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