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Dave Specter’s Adventures in Guitar with Jimmy Johnson
March 31, 2010
Kindred spirits of the Blues
by Dawn O’Keefe Williams
photos by: Jennifer Wheeler
photos by: Jennifer Wheeler
CLICK HERE to see more photos
CLICK HERE to see more photos
The 3rd series of Dave Specter’s Adventures in Guitar, featuring veteran blues recording artist Jimmy Johnson (Alligator, Ruf, Verve, Delmark), was a pleasant adventure in itself, as one boldly ventured to the North Shore suburb in search of the near-clandestine music room. The venue S.P.A.C.E. (Society for the Preservation of Arts, and Culture in Evanston) is almost hidden inside a rather nondescript building with huge glass windows at 1245 Chicago Avenue. The entrance is shared by an upscale bar/restaurant, Union Pizza; a long narrow hallway takes you to a back room. Behind two large wooden doors is the intimate, yet spacious nightclub.
The first thing you notice upon entering this room is the open feeling and the vibe. Its hip design of exposed brick with softly lit pleated lights in the vaulted ceiling gives the space a calm, warm ambiance. The club was well-designed by one of the partners who does rehab and has an eye for interiors. All throughout the room there are panels strategically placed to absorb and diffuse sound. Installed above the stage is a “cloud” sound absorption. The decorative curtains also serve as sound baffles as well and warm up the room. Combine this with the soundman, legendary Jim Reeves (engineer for Columbia Records, Epic, United Artists and The Record Plant Recording Studio), and it is a music lover’s utopia and a performer’s dream. “It’s a wonderful place!” Jimmy Johnson later exclaimed after the show. “People don’t come here to drink, they come to hear music!” The club does have a fully-stocked bar, however. No food is served, but patrons are allowed to bring in pizzas from next door.
Guitarist Dave Specter, a recording artist with Delmark and Fret 12, is also one of the owners of S.P.A.C.E. He casually stepped on stage with the band: Mike Schlick on drums, Harlan Terson on bass and Ben Paterson on keys. Dave’s stage presence is always cool and calm, yet he silently draws you in as his quiet stance allows you to focus on his performance, which is strictly instrumental; he doesn’t sing. As he plays his Gibson ES137, Dave’s face becomes gently hypnotic, his music flowing with precision. The guitarist starts the evening with an uptempo song, “Holiday Park Shuffle,” from his 2008 Delmark CD, Live In Chicago. Dave’s well-honed dynamics in his solos are complemented by the rhythm of the organ and Harlan’s solid walk on the bass which gives a slight jazz feel to the number.
The following three songs that Dave debuted were from his new CD that will be released in May or June titled Spectified on the Fret 12 Label. “Stick To The Hip,” a funky R&B song, found Dave’s rhythmic guitar trading solos with Paterson’s keys; at one point they joined together to create an impressive horn section sound, as the crowd applauded its approval.
This led to “Blues Call” a sexy Latin influenced song. Dave announced that blues guitarist Rockin’ Johnny was in the house and stated, “This song is for you” as he launched into “Lumpus Du Rumpus,” a rousing uptempo number that pulled the audience in as they clapped to the time. At this point Dave Specter had the audience wrapped up in every move he made. The song was building with almost a rock and roll groove. Dave pulled a slide seemingly out of nowhere and coaxed a searing melody out of his strings. The crowd cheered with delight at that surprise as the drums were right there alongside Dave, accenting the beat. Dave then clipped the slide to his guitar strap with ease and flew right into a solo without missing a beat. Dave then introduced “Alley Walk,” a song with a smoldering gritty feel, and included a creative melodic twist in his solo, which ranged from single notes to octaves and double stops. The ease and finesse displayed by this veteran guitarist, along with how he handled different styles of playing, made listening and watching him such a pleasure.
Dave brought up his special guest, bluesman Jimmy Johnson, also known as “The Bar Room Preacher”. Jimmy announced that he was celebrating his 50th year in showbiz and started out the set with a Junior Wells song, “Little By Little”. Within the first verse, the crowd roared. Jimmy’s voice is smooth and youthful sounding, as is his general presence; you’d never guess that he is 81 years old! His body swayed in time and his feet danced lightly as he played his Paul Reed Smith guitar. It was obvious that both Dave and Jimmy have worked together for a long time. They complemented each other -- Jimmy’s smooth style was countered by Dave’s full and rousing solo. When Jimmy sang or played, then Dave laid back and played rhythm.
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” by Fenton Robinson was Jimmy’s next choice. His voice sounded soulful with vocal inflections that wrapped around you while he played a simple, yet powerful, style on his guitar. Always the gentleman, Jimmy pointed to the keyboards to acknowledge Ben Paterson, who countered the slow blues with a rhythmic solo.
“It Feels So Bad” by Little Milton had Jimmy giving up a little growl to his normally smooth, silky voice. Dave played behind Jimmy giving tasteful rhythms that displayed great musicianship and teamwork. Neither Dave nor Jimmy had pedals. All of their solos were pure skill. “It’s a great amp.” Jimmy said referring to the Fender Vibrolux that S.P.A.C.E. provided. “When I have a great amp I don’t need a pedal.” Dave later stated that he likes pedals when they are used tastefully. He prefers to use a power boost pedal and one that creates a Hammond organ sound.
Throughout the show, Jimmy and Dave showed their creativity and flexibility as they performed a variety of blues styles. At times Dave blended a jazz influence with his blues. He’d play a searing solo and then would pull back from leading the band to deliver tasteful, soulful rhythms to accompany Jimmy’s performance. These veteran musicians, along with the well-seasoned band members, perform almost with telepathy. However, if you watch closely you will see a subtle nod, eye contact, or a move of the guitar. With one little motion, the rhythm section will know when to break down for a solo or vocal, or go to a turn around.
During the show Jimmy was friendly and joked with the crowd, as he urged them to “…laugh and applaud because that makes my boss happy and then I won’t have to come to your house and borrow no money!” The audience laughed and applauded his humor.
For the funky Lonnie Brooks tune, “Two Headed Man,” Jimmy swayed and danced again. The agile octogenarian led the band in old school blues fashion as he shouted the chord changes in one part of the song. Dave played the accents behind Jimmy and the drums nailed the turn-around with a strong hit on the snare. The band broke down, keeping the rhythm going and Jimmy laughingly introduced Dave as his competition; Dave stated that Jimmy was his teacher. You could feel the respect and camaraderie between them. After each band member was acknowledged and given a few bars to demonstrate their chops, Jimmy silently thanked The Lord with a motion of his hand and walked off the stage.
Of course there was an encore. It was the best part of the evening. Jimmy came back to the stage and sang “Easy Money,” a rockin’, funky blues song that he wrote. The crowd applauded and shouted, pleased to hear Jimmy, Dave and the band end the evening with such a spirited song.
Dave Specter has been performing for 25 years and he humbly stated that he feels lucky to have played with the elder statesmen of the blues, such as Jimmy who was kind enough to invite him over for a few lessons when Dave was new on the scene. They have forged a friendship and are kindred spirits in the blues.
Some upcoming events to look forward to: Dave and Jimmy will perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest the first weekend in May and they will also play at the Lucerne Fest in Switzerland in November. Dave’s new CD Spectified should be out in May or June.
The 4th show in the series of Dave Specter’s Adventures in Guitar will feature guitarist Steve Freund on Wednesday June 9, just before the Chicago Blues Fest kicks off on June 11.