I feel so privileged to be living in Los Angeles, where else can you be front row at an intimate recital by the great Alain Johannes, in a small bar downtown LA? If you are not familiar with his name, you are unforgivable because Alain is a founder member of several bands like the experimental rock group Eleven, while his name has been attached to many other very famous acts, such as Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Chris Cornell, Artic Monkeys, Mark Lanegan, or the famous Desert Sessions a musical collective series founded by Joshua Homme, which included the participation of many outstanding musicians from the Palm Desert Scene. Last time I saw him on a big stage, he was part of PJ Harvey’s band at the Shrine auditorium, but none of this is getting to Johannes’ head, as he humbly walked through the small bar packed with die-hard fans. He unassumingly took his signature cigar box guitar to produce the loudest and most dramatic sound ever. I had seen him play solo gigs before, but his sound and voice are always surprising, truly unique and transporting.
Totally alone on stage, he concentrated on his solo career, mostly playing cuts from his 2010 album ‘Spark’ and his 2014 album ‘Fragments and Wholes Vol. 1’, whereas he could have picked songs among a million of other ones. There were a few other happy surprises for fans, like Queens of the Stone Age’s cathartic tune ‘Hangin’ Tree’, that he co-wrote with Homme, and ‘Making a Cross’ from ‘The Desert Sessions’, which carries an authentic soothing heaviness floating above its sad melody.
There often was something almost Middle-Eastern in the sludgy melodies (listen for example to ‘Not on this Earth’) which immediately brought the hot wind of the desert in your ear and a devastating loneliness in your mind, and soon people started singing along ‘I’m making a cross of all you are/And up on the hill I hear your name’.
His guitar work and finger picking have always been remarkable, and the fact that he uses this tiny square cigar box guitar on many songs to get the maximum sonic effect from it, is absolutely fascinating. And when it is combined with a croon like his, which goes from the deepest shades of darkness to a high powerhouse falsetto, you understand very fast that Johannes doesn’t need anybody else when he is on stage. He can produce a full sound with a minimum of equipment, mimicking the deep bass with his voice on ‘Return to You’, all firing up into a personal brand of Flamenco style on ‘Gentle Ghosts’, or reaching a more gentle side of his repertoire during ‘Pebble Tears’, which was carrying a deep melancholy.
‘Let’s switch to a real instrument,’ he said while taking a regular guitar for ‘Pebble Tears’ and mocking his tiny cigar box, ‘If you hear some jazz chords it’s because I forgot the real chords,’ he added. There was nothing forgotten. ‘Kaleidoscope’ was exhaling lonely incantations in the desert while’ Make God Jealous’, played with a larger cigar box (‘the big Al’) was part devastation, part thunder and anger, while his hand along the neck of the guitar was barely running faster than his other hand strumming the chords.
If many of his songs are haunted by ghosts and loaded with a comforting but very emotional heaviness, it’s because his solo album ‘Spark’ was written just after the death of his wife, Natasha Shneider, co-founder of Eleven and frequent QOTSA keyboardist. And the poignancy of all the songs seemed to translate the endless facets of this tragedy.
Johannes was generously opening for one of his protégés, songwriter and guitarist Monique St. Walker whose moniker, Blackbird Days evokes the darkness filtering under her melodic indie rock. Her latest EP, ‘My Lobotomy’, was produced by Alain Johannes, just like her previous self-title album. She rocked the stage with her band and a loud reverb-heavy sound combined with a sort of baroque pop twist,… I would even say that some of her songs had a noir cabaret vibe (listen to ‘Sleeping Dogs’), while she was living her music to the fullest with expressive gesture and a real charm. ‘So It Goes’ had this poignant yearning of early Fiona Apple, just louder and fuzzier, followed by more passionate howls over voluminous guitars and big choruses. Alain Johannes joined the band for a brand new and slower song called ‘Ships’, flirting with the doom side, while Monique switched to the most unusual instrument in rock ‘n’ roll, the accordion. She didn’t forget a too recent heartbreak, and ended the show by a Tom Petty cover, but not the obvious one, given us some strong Stevie Nicks vibe with ‘Stop Dragging my Heart Around’. Blackbird Days will be at the Redwood Bar every Wednesday of October, with a different line up each time, go see her.
Alain Johannes setlist
Not on this Earth 2013
Return to You
Making a Cross (The Desert Sessions)
Make God Jealous
Hangin’ Tree (QOTSA)
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