The Boston Phoenix
January 6 - 13, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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String-driven things

Johnny A., Mascara, and Auto 66

Cellars by Starlight by Ted Drozdowski

Johnny A. Great guitar players don't need fingerprints. They can be identified by their tone -- the distinctive qualities of the sounds they pick, pluck, pull, and push from their instruments. The most dedicated players spend their musical lives looking for a tone, a voice within their guitar that's truly their own. Some find it and stop searching; others never do. For Malden-raised guitarist Johnny A., the hunt began in his teens, when he switched from drums to six-string and a steady diet of the recordings of masters from George Harrison to Chet Atkins, Johnny Rivers, Eric Clapton, Kenny Burrell, Joe Satriani, and Wes Montgomery. And, of course, Jimi Hendrix, whom his mom took him to see.

"I've always been attracted to guitarists who play around a song," he relates over a plate of barbecue at Redbones in Somerville. "I like technique, but not at the expense of what a song's about, or of soul or street vibe."

A., whose earliest musical memories are of the dancing Middle Eastern melodies of artists like El Bakkar and Barsamian, artists whose records were played alongside Little Willie John by his parents, came up playing at church and high-school dances in the North Shore 'burbs. Then he graduated to the Boston rock scene, where he led the bands Johnny A.'s Hidden Secret and Hearts on Fire, among others. He also moved to San Francisco for a time, where he played in a short-lived outfit with R&B organist Bobby Whitlock and Creedence Clearwater Revival drummer Doug Clifford. He rejoined Whitlock in the early '90s; then in '93 he became part of Peter Wolf's Houseparty Five.

"Playing with Pete was a buzz," he says. "I learned a lot. And that band gave 150 percent every night, whether we were at Great Woods or playing in a club in Cleveland. It was a total challenge. I'm a songwriter, and I didn't write any music for Pete. My job as a sideman was making him sound his best. And he was into guys like Bobby Womack, Steve Cropper, Curtis Mayfield -- these R&B guitar players who I didn't have in my bag. He gave me their stuff to study and wanted me to play more like them, which -- hopefully -- I did. But that wasn't really me, you understand?"

Yes, but those who attended A.'s performances with the J. Geils Band frontman over the years heard something that perhaps A. himself didn't: a guitarist whose tone was taking on richness and size. It seems now, with the release of A.'s all-instrumental solo debut, Sometime Tuesday Morning, that the process of examining unfamiliar styles with Wolf helped bring his own playing into focus.

Of course, it wasn't that simple. After the 1996 release of Wolf's Long Line (Reprise), which A. and bassist Stu Kimball produced with the soulified vocalist, and a stretch of touring that included an acoustic version of Wolf's band, Wolf disbanded the Houseparty Five. A. took a job in an audio store, which then went out of business.

"So I was at home, just playing my guitar. I'm not a schooled player; I play by ear. But I always admired seeing a guy in a lounge with a piano or guitar who could play by himself, without vocals, and convey a complete sense of what a song is about. So I took out some music books, staring with The Complete Beatles, and started teaching myself how to read. I wanted to learn how to play the guitar alone in a way that incorporated the melody and arrangement details like the violin parts and the rhythmic feel -- to capture the sense of a song.

"It started with 'Till There Was You,' my breakthrough, from The Music Man. And we still do it live."

We, for the record, is A., bassist Ed Spargo, and drummer Craig MacIntyre, who collectively call themselves the Bam-Boom Ensemble. Live, they offer the grit that name conjures, biting into their tunes with all the "soul" and "street" it takes to keep A. content. But they do much more.

A's new group is a singular presence on the Boston rock and pop scene, winding jazz, blues, popular tunes, rock, and flourishes of psychedelic improvisation into a tight, passionate ball. Think Blow by Blow-era Jeff Beck, with the volume turned down, and you're on the right track. Yeah, in a sense it's lounge music. But when A. and crew tackle the R&B standard "You Don't Love Me," it's hairy as Hendrix -- a near-cousin of "Who Knows" from Jimi's Band of Gypsys. And A.'s straight-for-the-heart performance of "Wichita Lineman" captures all the fragile poetry of Jimmy Webb's graceful arrangement.

These tunes and a dozen more made it on to Sometime Tuesday Morning, an album that almost didn't happen when the tiny label that originally sent A.'s Ensemble into Blue Jay Studios in Carlisle folded in the middle of the mixing process. A. had to secure financing to complete mixing and put out the album, which he's now taken to Tower Records, Newbury Comics, and the Internet (CD Baby and his own, and which he gigs himself while he tries to find a label or distributor to run with it.

It's certainly one of last year's best local CDs, full of generous melodies. Not only do the delicately pointillistic title track, the riff-driven "Two Wheel Horse," the country-pickin' "Tex Critter," the lovely Kenny-Burrell-meets-
Stevie-Ray-Vaughan-flavored "Lullabye for Nicole" and the muscular "Walkin' West Ave." (which teams funk, sweet blues, and wah-wah-pedal stunt flying) sing with the control and passion of a marvelously expressive vocalist -- they do it all in A.'s distinct voice.

"If you play someone `Sometime Tuesday Morning' or `Tex Critter' separately, it doesn't sound like the same player," A. offers. "But as an album, the guitar tone is the glue. I have a very light picking hand. I use it for dynamics, which you can hear jump out a lot. And I have this Marshall amplifier that I got new in '93 with Peter. I tried recording the album with vintage amps, but they just didn't sound like me." A. also favors Gibson guitars, which are all over the CD, from his vintage ES-295 to new Les Pauls. But it's not the gear that makes Sometime Tuesday Morning a gem. It's him. (Johnny A. and the Bam-Boom Ensemble will appear at the House of Blues on Wednesday January 19. Call 497-2229.)



Another compelling local CD fueled by hell-fire guitar is Mascara's debut, Cellar Door (Mascara Records). This four-piece are led by guitarist/singer Chris Mascara. And by Chris's gut emotions. From the opening scream of Tim Kelly's lap steel guitar on "Carnival" to the menacing tritone chords that hang beneath the verses of "Sweet Anne" to the droning deadpan string strikes and prickly leads that emerge everywhere, guitars touch the raw nerves of Mascara songs. Which are very raw. The sanatorium chaos of "Carnival" is based on Chris Mascara's own post-breakdown stay at McLean Hospital. The mix of melody and fury in "Electrode" plumbs the numbing effect of shock therapy. "JesusSatan" picks at the scabby edges of human nature and the conflicts of religious dogma and morality. And all the time the guitars of Mascara and Kelly do their thing, covering turf that ranges from the grinding distortion of the Velvet Underground to the angular wailing of Pere Ubu and Gang of Four.

"I came up through the ranks as a supporting player, a lead guitar in somebody else's band," says Mascara, whose credits include Nineteen, Box Car Betty, his own Rootlock, and the pit band for Boston Rock Opera (where in addition he understudied Gary Cherone as the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar). "Also, when I was a young kid, I studied classical organ, so I play chords that only a classical organist would love. A lot of the weirdness in question comes from the altered tunings I use. I enjoy making up a song where I'm relying on my ears and not muscle memory or rock formula."

To that end, Chris has developed his own variations on open tunings, and he douses his sound with effects like vintage phase shifters and an Electric Mistress. "A lot of the songs on Cellar Door were among the first bunch of songs I wrote about eight years ago, but when it came time to record, of the 100 or so I've got in my repertoire we felt like those really hung together nicely because of their confessional nature."


The Boston rock scene has plenty of outstanding improvisers, from guitarist Reeves Gabrels to saxist Ken Field to Saturnalia's violin-wielding leader, Jonathan LaMaster. But the improvising trio Auto 66 labor under a unique, playful set of constraints. They use a timer, set for between two and five minutes, to rein in their pieces, and they insist on creating heads and riffs that they treat like verses and chorus, building instant instrumental pop songs rather than textural pieces.

This works well both live and on album, where numbers (a term I use loosely, since these tunes live only once) like the recorded "Gold Fever" sound at times like U2's collaborations with Brian Eno, minus Bono. Most often drummer Joe Coe lays down mid-tempo percolation while guitarist Doug Vargas and bassist Tristram Lozaw do a spiders' dance, interweaving lines of melody. It's music to float away by, yet it remains consistently melodic and focused, the hooks always to the fore even when Vargas is pulling bell tones out of his Stratocaster or Lozaw starts snapping his bass strings for dirty, violent, adamantly propulsive effect.

All three Auto 66 members are powerful and experienced players, and that rings in the offhand way they establish and sustain moods, especially live, where the music often takes on a darker, heavier cast than on their debut CD, Pro*Mo (Tri bal Jargon). Lozaw's history ranges from mid-'80s outfit Someone and the Somebodies to present-era bands Serum and Dirt Red. Vargas also plays in Dirt Red; his first prominent local role was in Aimee Mann's pre-'Til Tuesday band the Young Snakes. But it's Auto 66 who are proving to be a vehicle for some of this trio's most vital, creative playing.

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