Someone once said that the relative dearth of blues musicians around here is actually a weather thing; who can sing the blues under 300 annual days of sunshine?
Hmmm…. To be fair, John Ohnmacht isn’t doing it here all the time. In between gigs as frontman and guitarist/songwriter for the Johnny O Band, Ohnmacht trundles himself down to Brazil (another sunny climate, we note) where he picks up backing-band electric and solo acoustic gigs, an erstwhile departure from the slightly dangerous Chicago-meets-Big Easy hybrid blues-funk he and his trio band tour with around Colorado and stateside during festival season.
Brazil? “My father lives down there half the year,” Ohnmacht explains. “I started going down there 10 years ago, and I hooked up with a good buddy who’s a producer/manager type guy. He’s been putting these little tours together for me. He’s connected with a lot of the top acts in Rio, and all the top clubs.
“And, y’know, they really dig the blues. There’s blues bands down there, but no one really doin’ it like … I dunno, a good American player can,” Ohnmacht chuckles.
It’s not as if the cats down there can’t play the guitar, of course. Brazil has a deep and treasured history of astounding musical talent, especially specific to the guitar. But there’s something endemically American about the blues — a kind of cultural DNA, maybe.
“We grew up with soul music and stuff; there’s a whole different school that we’re comin’ from. So a guy like me that spent a lot of time in New Orleans and spent a lot of time studying Southern music and soul music … they understand it and they hear it.”
And inspired by his trips to Rio, Ohnmacht has also just released (pretty quietly) a solo CD called A Volta, a selection of 12 acoustic instrumentals, with Mark Diamond and Christian Teele lending rhythm section support.
But Ohnmacht’s bread ’n’ butter is the Johnny O Band, a trio he first assembled back around 1997, only a year or two after his gig with the eclectic Boulder-based Band Du Jour wrapped up. Aficionados of Gov’t Mule, Tommy Castro, Stevie Ray and the T-Birds find common ground with Ohnmacht’s blues, which itself retains a bit of the backbeat funkiness that resonates from Band Du Jour’s heyday in the early and mid-’90s, minus a little of the genre-colliding madness that BDJ spread during its marathon touring years in the southeast and along the West Coast.
Paired with longtime veteran drummer Marion Edwards and Jamaican bassist Ian Anderson, the band is a mainstay at the Outlook and various stages in Denver, as well as the bigger stages up at the mountain towns during spring skiing season, but also carries its gig around the country as a reliable and well-respected draw. After better than a decade of working it, three well-received CDs and a seamless stage gig, it’s that weird combination of being a “local act” when they’re playing around here, and a stout, counterpunching contender out of state, that perplexes.
“Yeah, that’s the case sometimes, but we get good gigs around here, too,” Ohnmacht says. “We opened up for Robert Randolph a few years ago and played for 5,000 people up at Breckenridge. I mean, it’s a work in progress, and it’s not the goal; it’s the journey.
“And I know a lot of these bands in these other places [like Chicago, California and New York] that struggle. If you live out in California, yeah you can get gigs, but the cost of living is three times as much. Same with New York. Y’know, it’s a pretty good scene, with blues festivals that hit in the summer. And, y’know, we’re established. We have a great rapport with dozens of venue owners around the state, and if you move to a place like California, you don’t have that.”
It’s a fine thing, living in Colorado and playing the blues, even if it’s a far cry (and a decade and a half ) removed from Band Du Jour’s swan song.
“We played 27 states the last year we were on tour together, we were just touring like mad. And I got a good taste for it, and I’d love to be on the road like that with this band.
“I go down to Rio and we’re killin’ them. And they’ve never seen a band like I have here. … I mean, they have some awesome drummers down there, but they don’t have anyone that can touch my man Marion.
“The band has been hittin’ on a new level and continues to get better. There’s going to be a bustin’ point.”
On the Bill
The Johnny O Band plays Nissi’s on Thursday, Dec. 30. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 in advance, $7 day of show. 2675 North Park Dr., Lafayette, 303-665-2757.