Johnny A at the Gothic Theatre

The Gothic Theatre is a great venue. I’ve seen a few acts there, Willy Porter, Indigenous, and The Rock Bottom Remainders among them. Tonight, I was fortunate enough to see Johnny A, with Liz Clark and another act opening. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the name of the first act clearly, but he was a good guitar player with a beat up cowboy hat, glasses, a cane, and a three-word name with “Toby” at the end. If any of you know who I’m talking about, please let me know so I can update this page.)

Liz Clark is a talented young singer/songwriter from Denver, with strong pipes. She plays multiple instruments and, at age 20, she already knows how to handle a crowd. During her set, she noted that there were a couple of hecklers in the crowd — I was well aware of this, since they were sitting two chairs from me — and they quieted down for a while. There’s nothing like directing all the attention in the place to the people who are trying to get attention at a performer’s expense. Liz played several songs, one of which was a cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Tomorrow, Wendy.” All were strong songs, with well thought out lyrics. Her voice sounded at times like a couple of other female pop/rock stars, but she does have a distinctive, plaintive wail she sometimes throws in that sets her apart. I look forward to seeing Liz perform again at some of the many local venues where she appears.

Johnny A is amazing, as you might expect me to say. He’s from Boston, and currently has one release called Sometime Tuesday Morning, which spawned a local hit, “Oh Yeah.” He played two custom Les Paul guitars, strapless, with Bigsby Tremolo units on each, and he’s the first guitarist I’ve ever seen play live without an amp cabinet or at least a miked combo amp. He plugged his blonde Marshall 30th Anniversary head directly into the sound board and used the onstage monitors and stage speakers as his cabinet. This created a great tone, and when he used stereo effects pedals he was able to create a huge, swirling sound that filled the whole venue. His sound man definitely had a handle on his art.

When Johnny came on the stage, he picked up a microphone and said, “You guys are too far away. Come down here!” Many of us left our seats and gathered around the edge of the stage, and I was lucky enough to have a clear view of his hands from within ten feet. You would think maybe I learned something from that, but I can honestly say that it went right over my head. Virtuoso musicians like Johnny A and Eric Johnson approach their instruments in ways that I can’t yet comprehend. It’s like reading another language; I recognize the letters, and sometimes I pick up on a word or two, but the grammar never goes where I expect it to. It’s a humbling experience to watch someone so far beyond my abilities.

I know enough to say that Johnny’s playing is silky and fluid, with a liberal use of legato and bends. It is sometimes staccato, with funky double-stops and string snaps. I think I was most amazed when he played “Wind Cries Mary,” using a call-and-response format. He would play one phrase in his own style, then answer with Jimi’s style in the next phrase, and alternate back and forth. He carried on his own conversation with Jimi Hendrix onstage, and I was privileged enough to watch and listen. For an encore, he essentially played an extended Hendrix “Voodoo Child” medley, again incorporating his own funky style, but throwing in the occasional Hendrix lick for those of us in the crowd who hadn’t caught the initial hook.

Of course, these are the things you expected me to say. I can also say that he’s a pretty cool cat. He signed autographs after the show, and someone mentioned the “asshole” who wouldn’t shut up during the shows. (This is one of the guys Liz Clark had mentioned, earlier.) Given the opportunity to grouse about hecklers, Johnny took the high road. He said, “Oh, no, he was just having a good time. He wasn’t a problem. He was a good heckler, not a bad heckler.” When a guy is beat from a year straight of touring, can still put on a high energy show, and have nice words to say about hecklers, you gotta know there’s something more than just a talented guitar player inside him. He’s a good human being, too.

Often, after shows like this, I get bummed out about how far I have to go to be an accomplished guitarist. I started to get that feeling as I was driving up Broadway, but then I passed by Herman’s Hideaway and started to smile. You see, the last time I went to a show at the Gothic, I hadn’t played Herman’s yet. This time, I had. I guess maybe I am making some progress.

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