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.

Willy Porter, Twice

What? You haven’t seen Willy Porter yet? You don’t know who he is? You’re missing out, pal. I got to see him for the second (and third, actually) time today. First, he gave an in-store appearance at Twist and Shout Underground in the afternoon and played several songs, among them a trademark improvised song about the store itself. He ended the set with a solo acoustic version of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” (Yes, the whole song, complete with key and rhythm changes.) Afterward, my wife and I got to meet him as he was signing a CD for us. Great guy. Really great guy.

This evening, we watched him perform at the Soiled Dove to a standing room only crowd. We were the first people at the venue, so we got seats exactly where we wanted: right at the edge of the stage. Willy was amazing, working the cheesehead-friendly crowd in between songs while he coaxed his guitar into alternate tunings. He played two guitars on stage, an old Bischoff with cracks in the finish and a very warm, aged sound. The other was a seemingly new Guild cutaway model, with gold tuning machines and a gorgeous quilt pattern on the sides and back. (It’s the guitar he’s playing on the cover of his latest eponymous album.)

Willy couldn’t play as long as we wanted him to, because Opie Gone Bad was scheduled to play the same night. (We didn’t stay for the Opie show, so I can’t report on it.) However, he played many of the songs that he hasn’t always performed live in recent years, like “Watercolor,” “Jesus on the Grille,” and my personal favorite, “Angry Words.” To me, the high point of the night was when he was tuning up for “Angry Words,” with two capos on the fretboard at the second and fourth frets (one was a half capo.) Someone in the crowd yelled “Freebird” and Willy just grinned, then stepped up to the mike and proceeded to sing an operatic version of “Freebird,” accompanying himself on guitar in the strange capo configuration. The man obviously knows his fretboard. I hope to learn to play some of his music, and I hope to see him perform many more times.

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.

Blogs, Bryant and Bands

I’ve been reading bluejack’s blog daily since I first heard about it. The more I read it, the more impressed I am by his page design. I’m considering altering this journal to a format more like his, with one daily entry per page and a link to recent entries. I’ll contact him today to see if he is okay with that. I’ll probably make some changes anyway, so if you see any links that aren’t working, please consider them to be works in progress.

Today is the Stories for All Seasons celebration of Ed Bryant’s 50-mumbleth birthday. Keith and I will be going there tonight to listen to him read stories from his (still) forthcoming collection, Flirting With Death, and he’s hinted in his Mathom newsletter that he will read a new science fiction story. That’s a treat, because he has been writing primarily horror for quite some time now.

I also heard from Brad the Drummer today that Dante Spumante may have gotten a Friday gig at Cricket on the Hill based on their (our?) performance on the 13th. I hope they call me to fill in again; I enjoyed playing that gig very much. I don’t know if this will be an original set or a cover set, but I’m hoping for an original set or a mix. That will increase my chances of getting a phone call from John.

John and Theresa from Dante Spumante will be playing at the Singer/Songwriter showcase at this year’s Taste of Colorado, on Sunday, September 1 at 2:00 PM. Go see them if you get the chance.

I also found out that Willy Porter, one of the most talented singer/songwriter/guitarists I’ve ever seen, will be playing in Ft. Collins and Denver on September 20th and 21st. Check his website for details. The Denver show will be at the Soiled Dove, downtown, which should be a great intimate venue for his music. I’m there. I hope I get to meet him.

This morning, I actually got up and exercised, then did some work on the computer for a little while. I’m trying to get into the routine that I told myself I would get into when I got the office set up. With my son starting school again next week, I have even more incentive, because we have to arrange our showering schedules. (That’s probably more information than any of you wanted to know!) The point is, I’m getting closer to writing in the mornings, like I wanted to do. I may make these entries part of that morning ritual, too.

At lunch today, I read some more of Sophie’s World, and passed a critical juncture in the story. The plot has thickened, as the saying goes. It’s pretty cool when I can say anything about plot in a novel that’s primarily a survey course in philosophy.