American Idol, Guitar Player Style

In a rare meeting of Texas and Wisconsin, two of my favorite guitarists will be playing at the Boulder Theater in a few days. Willy Porter will be opening the show for Eric Johnson in the same small venue where E-Town is taped every week. I’ve seen both of these artists at this venue before, and both shows were excellent.

Willy Porter is a phenomenal guitar player and songwriter, and it stuns me that he hasn’t gotten the national recognition that he deserves. I think part of the problem has been that his studio work is much more toned down than his live playing. When he plays live, he covers all the parts that are covered by other musicians on the studio tracks. With intimate knowledge of the fretboard and alternate tunings, Willy is able to adjust his guitar during the show to play any of the tracks off his albums, and usually throws in a unique cover or two.

Eric Johnson, while not a household name, is at least well-known in the guitar player community, and has been since he appeared on the cover of Guitar Player magazine in 1986. (The cover caption said, “Who is Eric Johnson, and why is he on our cover?”) A veteran of the music business and its contract pitfalls, Johnson has somehow managed to stay at the forefront of guitar virtuosos for the last twenty years, despite sparse album releases. In recent years, his album output has increased, in part due to a relaxing of his legendary perfectionism.

I’m very excited about the show, and will report back about it when it’s over.

Oh, the Important Advice for the Day: Always open Yoplait yogurt containers away from your body.

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.

Stories Everywhere

Story ideas are everywhere. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you his idea service.

Today, as I was leaving the grocery store, I pulled up next to a nice black car at the stoplight. The driver was a young blonde woman, her hair pulled back in a professional-style ponytail. It was about 6:00 PM, and she looked as if she had just gotten off work. She was very pretty, and her face was scrunched in worry. That, in itself, is enough to spark a story. What would make a young, successful businesswoman worry so? What is happening in her life?

As she waited for the light, she got a small box out of one of the grocery bags and opened it. She pulled a sheet of paper out of the box and unfolded it. The sheet had a pink border; it was instructions for a home pregnancy test. She was still waiting at the stoplight when I drove into the intersection.

You can’t tell me there’s not a story there. I guarantee it’s a very important story for the young lady. I couldn’t see if she had a ring on her left hand; depending on whether she did or didn’t, the story could go in vastly different directions.

On another occasion, I was walking with my wife in downtown Denver one frigid night. We were on our way to an Eric Johnson concert at the Ogden Theatre. As we walked, a couple about a block in front of us stopped short, dropped their bags, and faced each other, yelling. We slowed, not sure what was going to happen or if we would have room to get by. They sparred verbally, and then the man suddenly picked up his shopping bag, turned, and walked briskly up the street, away from us. The woman stood still. She called after him a couple of times, but he didn’t turn around or stop. She started crying. Gathering her things, she began to shuffle up the street in the direction he had gone, still sobbing in the cold air.

I have no idea what they were arguing about, or whether it was right for him to strand her on Colfax Avenue on a winter night. Perhaps he had some justification, or perhaps he was just a jerk. But the scene could translate almost directly into a story or even a movie script. I’ve often thought it would be a good exercise to write that scene from different perspectives: one that paints the man’s actions in a positive light, one that paints his actions in a negative light, and one that explains what’s happened in a way that neither person looks like the villain.

Observation is really all it takes to come up with the spark for a story. The writer doesn’t have to record the events perfectly for an idea to start burning; in fact, it might keep the idea from growing if the writer sticks too closely to the details. Stories that are based in reality may sometimes benefit from tension-inducing details that were not in the inspirational scene.

Tonight, I played Morrowind for the first time in weeks. I didn’t get very far; in fact, I stopped playing it in favor of reading Word Work. I should be able to finish the book at lunch tomorrow.