It’s Thursday night, and you swear you are going to stay home to finish some work, but you learn that Alain Johannes is playing a free show at the Monty bar, next to the Teragram Ballroom? Of course you are gonna go, Alain is currently touring with PJ Harvey and she is taking a break, so this gave him some free time for a very cool show in a fabulous place downtown LA. The Monty bar has a giant bar and a Western-New-Orleans-Bordello vibe and, it can get a bit dark inside, you can’t go more intimate than this.
Alain Johannes is the founding member of many famous bands starting with the alt-rock group Eleven, that he founded with his wife Natasha Shneider and Jack Irons (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam), but he was also part of Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Chris Cornell, Artic Monkeys, Mark Lanegan, the Desert Sessions. I remember seeing him at Amoeba in 2010, when he released his debut album ‘Spark’, a tribute to his late wife Natasha. Johannes is currently producing a lot of artists, such as Irontom, a hyper-dynamic young band with a Led Zeppelin-meets-Muse vibe that I had the pleasure to see a couple of times, but also Blackbird Days, the band which was opening for him at the Monty bar on Thursday night.
Blackbird Days is singer-songwriter Monique St. Walker, who fronted her band with charm and charisma last night. Her last EP, ‘Lobotomy’, a series of melodic rock songs, was produced by Johannes like her previous one, and she and her band made a big splash on the small stage-area, around which people had packed very tightly. The sound was expansive, slightly baroque, sometimes on the dark side, with soaring howls and powerful guitars. There was an overall romantic or even passionate feeling all set-long, and her poignant melodies, could even have sounded like a more rocking version of a lost early Radiohead song. A new song she announced as ‘Sailboat Dreams’ was particularly interesting, still dreamy but darker with a sprawling sound, whereas many of her songs had a very solid poppy side, with ascending vocals and hooks so emotional that you didn’t want the song to end. ‘Love is a Curse’, the last song they played, was especially striking with loud guitars rocking to new heights, installing some great arena-rock emotional drama.
Alain Johannes played solo with the help of no less than four guitars, two of his signature cigar-box mini guitars, which carried their very specific hi-pitch sound, blending with his semi-Arabic-chant-semi-plaintive-serenade howls… And this must be the desert sound, his voice totally embodies it, with a real sadness in the dragging and vibrating yells and a touch of flamenco in his tiny guitar. The set was only him, sitting down, going from a cigar box to an acoustic guitar then an electric one, covering Eleven, The Desert Sessions, and his own impressive songs, like the very emotional ‘Return to You’. It’s impossible not to hear Queens of the Stone Age’s sound, especially in the song from the Desert Sessions, a musical collective series, founded by Josh Homme and featuring many artists such as Brant Bjork, PJ Harvey, Dave Catching, Nick Oliveri, Mark Lanegan, Troy Van Leeuwen, Dean Ween and many others.
Playing acoustic probably reinforces the emotion, but his playing style was very intense and exiting, some amazing ultra-fast finger picking with peaks of flamenco, Arabist style, almost middle-age-sounding at other times, an interesting mix of rhythms and atmospheres behind his somber baritone, and an avalanche of chords and dark vibrations, which became even more striking when he took his second cigar box guitar. Of course, he covered a Queens Of The Stone Age song, ‘Hangin’ Tree’ and this turned into a giant sing-along as there were many QOTSA fans in the crowd. Now, these songs are very layered and complex, live, they sound like riffs piling at the top of each other, and Johannes effortlessly brought the song to its full force with only an acoustic guitar. He asked us if we didn’t mind to get weird for the last one, and he treated us with some throbbing electric soundscape, which looked like a brilliant improvisation.
Alain Johannes is an astonishing guitarist and musician, who can still surprise you with an acoustic rendition of his songs, he brings so much energy and passion on stage, that the result sounds as if there were several guitars in the room. And if the songs have a tendency to build a very dark vibe, last night, they resonated like powerful and fully alive forces.
Not on this Earth
Return to you
Making a Cross (The Desert Sessions)
Swan and Crow
Make God Jealous
Hangin’ Tree (Queens of the Stone Age)
? ‘Getting Weird’ with the electric guitar
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