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Alain Johannes At Highland Park Bowl, Saturday September 11th


Alain Johannes
Alain Johannes

Every time I see Alain Johannes perform, I am fascinated by his amazing guitar skills and his ease to play complex melodies, while he just accompanies his deep baritone with a simple acoustic guitar or his signature cigar box guitar. He did an acoustic set at Highland Park Bowl on Saturday night, where local bands are used to play on the weekend. The place is very unassuming and this was a real treat to see a musician with such an impressive resume play in this intimate setting. As a musician and producer, Johannes has been involved with plenty of bands besides the alternative rock supergroup Eleven, that he founded with his late wife Natasha Schneider in 1990. He was part of Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, but was also involved with Chris Cornell, Arctic Monkeys, Mark Lanegan and was even a member of PJ Harvey’s band when I saw her a few years ago.

Before Alain Johannes, Big Pig gave us a taste of their heavy music with a desert-rock thunder. They are a duo featuring members of stoner rock band Fatso Jetson, which could explain about everything about their sound: their simple and classic guitar-and-drums combo was as loud and heavy as a large band. With distorted guitars, aggressive riffs and squally drums, they went from doom metal-like moments to mad accelerations, producing a sonic eruption, blowing up the walls of the room with a desert rock explosion.

Alain Johannes was in a very good mood, happy to play for a small crowd, creating cathedral-like vibes inside the very small venue thanks to his powerful and flexible voice, while everyone was admiring his impressive, layered fingerpicking. There’s a certain darkness in his compositions, and a solemnity that imposes awe and silence. He played many songs from ‘Sparks,’ his 2010 album he wrote after the death of his wife, and the very emotional songs – ‘Endless Eyes,’, ‘Return to You,’ ‘Gentle Ghosts,’ ‘Unfinished Plan,’ ‘Make God Jealous’ – are just perfect for an acoustic setting. The vibrant melodies resonated with strength and transcendence, ‘Endless Eyes’ was executed with vigor and an urgent emotion while his voice brought a nuanced melancholia during the gentler ‘Return to You.’

‘Making a Cross’ (from his Desert Sessions) or ‘Free’ from his most recent album ‘Hum,’ or ‘Unfinished Plan,’ another one from ‘Spark’ brought new nuances of melancholia and depth still haunted by his imposing and alluring howl. ‘Make God Jealous’ was executed with a nervous and mind-blowing dexterity and all the brilliance of its middle Eastern and flamenco influences. He mentioned the Beatles several times, and it was not difficult to make the connection, especially when he played the splendid and very Beatlesque ‘Kaleidoscope.’

There’s no doubt that Alain Johannes is an under-rated artist, his virtuosic instrumental skills are out-of-this-world and his texturally rich compositions are under-appreciated to my taste. He also played one of his most famous compositions, ‘Hanging Tree,’ a song that he co-wrote with Joshua Homme and that is featured on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 album, ‘Songs for the Deaf.’ It was just a coincidence I was seeing Johannes just a few days later, but I naturally thought about Homme’s complicated divorce and the alarming headlines that were everywhere this past week. He didn’t mention anything of course, and I have no idea if both men are still close, but Alain Johannes is very probably aware of the sordid story. Life is a bumpy road, a complicated and unfair adventure, but one thing is certain, great music will always save us from misery.

Not on this Earth
Eyes to the Sky
Endless Eyes
Return to You
Making a Cross
Fall to Grace
Gentle Ghosts
Unfinished Plan
Hanging Tree
Make God Jealous



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