Johnny A., Mascara, and Auto 66
Cellars by Starlight by Ted Drozdowski
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
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
"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 JohnnyA.com), 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
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.
MASCARA ON MASCARA
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.