The older that blues guitarist Colin John gets, the less excited he gets about up-and-coming blues guitarists who try to turn the music on its head. "It's not an admission of defeat at all - it's just that … I don't really see anything new happening in the genre, other than having to twist it so far sideways and subvert it that it's no longer recognizable," he says in a recent phone interview.
This may be surprising coming from one of the most formidable electric-guitar slingers the North Coast has ever spawned. But lately, John has been focused on the acoustic side of life. A player whose plugged-in chops place him on par with guys like Steve Vai and Joe Bonamassa, the fortysomething John is reaching forward these days by reaching back: Country masters like Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell - rather than Hendrix, Clapton and Bloomfield - inform his current compositions. Just out, his seventh CD, Transpacific Blues, is a set of solo performances of mostly original fare played on an assortment of acoustic axes.
The album's title refers to Hawaii, one of the Akron-based road warrior's favorite landing spots, and the disc's release has spawned a number of recent listening parties and their inevitable accompanying luau-themed menus at venues between here and Columbus. As he put it after one of these recent bashes: "These days, I'm a summer-patio kind of guy."
Listen casually, and Transpacific is a set of mostly easygoing, ear-pleasing blues, rags and breezy mood pieces, skillfully picked and varied in flavor. Listen more closely, and John's compositional savvy shows through. Almost every track is graced with subtle touches that suggest there's more than mere rehashing going on. As each chorus of tuneful Piedmont-style blues follows another, John changes things up just enough, maintaining a nice balance with the built-in continuity of traditional themes. His confident technique and respect for the idiom recall the elegant blues restatements of the late John Fahey. Left to resonate throughout the body of the instrument and disappear in their own time, the sustained chords that close each phrase of "Blues for Keawe" make for a display of guitar-as-orchestra that impresses more on repeated listenings. "Lonesome Rider Blues" sports some of the most tuneful slide work this side of Ry Cooder. And like Cooder, John has a taste for the cross-cultural. The disc's title is more than a superficial reference, as the islands make their way into his music. John first hit Hawaii in 2003 as opening act for British blues icon John Mayall, following a string of globe-trotting years, during which John made the rounds, hooking up with numerous blues masters and garnering good press in New York, Memphis, London and elsewhere.
"[In Hawaii] I met a lot of great people, a lot of great musicians and I was invited back to play and just kept goin' back," he says. The islands' slack-key and steel guitarists were already a known quantity to John through records, and, through his repeated visits, he's connected cultural dots between the islands and the Delta that show up frequently on Transpacific. "It always fascinated me - the similarity with, for lack of a better word, primitive musics around the world. They use similar tuning." His current bias aside, John isn't dissing the electric scene.
"I think it's great that there's all these younger guys carrying on in the Stevie Ray tradition and the Hendrix thing, but to me, it's like I've been there and I've done that and I've got the T-shirt, and those guys wrote the book," he says. "I don't see a lot of new ground bein' broken."
And he hasn't abandoned electric sets completely; he alternates his acoustic gigs in the area with band dates that include bassist Gerard Dominick and drummer Darrell Jumper. But then Hawaii calls. John's next listening party is at a pub in Kailua-Kona. It might just be that, somewhere between Maui and Mississippi, Colin John has found his own musical space.