His friends aside, Colin John figures that most of the dinner crowd at Fat Fish Blue on a recent Friday night probably aren't here for his band as much as for the crawdads and Corona. With more than a decade of bar gigs -- from southern Ohio to New York to Memphis to London -- under his belt, he's got a strategy in place. The hotshot guitarist and his rhythm section will navigate both the patrons' detachment and the room's bus-depot acoustics with an opening set geared to cut through. He'll grab ears right away with a fleet-fingered instrumental opener. He'll toss out some easygoing blues grooves and make a jam affair out of some Al Green. He's more strongly connected to the Green sound than most players -- but more on that later.
Chopswise, John can hang with virtually any guitarslinger who fits the ever-widening present-day definition of blues. A sampling of his third self-released CD, Live Voodoo Surfing, shows John to be not just a formidable technician, but also an exciting and fiercely inventive player. He sounds as if he absorbed the uninhibited self-expression that Jeff Beck brought to blues.
Besides what's in his fingers, Colin John sports singer-songwriter skills on a par with those of Joe Bonamassa. His roots range is easily a match for that of North Mississippi All-Stars' Luther Dickinson. The All-Stars, in fact, are an outfit to which John's band is frequently compared -- something he doesn't mind.
"I'm a very serious guitar player, who happens to sing and write, hopefully, somewhat original songs," says the 39-year-old John by phone from his Akron home. He's just returned from a listening party and live set at the A&M Roadhouse in New York City, a bash well-attended by media and label folks. "I would call it contemporary blues, rock, and soul."
John's guitar career began when he injured an eardrum in a neighborhood football game, thereby ending his tenure as a trumpeter in his junior-high band. The band director moved him to double bass, and by his junior year, John had completed the transition to guitar. Thanks to some PBS television broadcasts, he encountered "pure" blues players, such as Son Seals and Mighty Joe Young, in addition to the customary guitar idols: Hendrix, Clapton, Page, and Beck. This diet of blues traditionalists and rock greats is evident in much of John's solo work, which is equal parts roots and flash.
"I've never been a straight-ahead blues person or straight-ahead rock and roll. I listen to everything -- jazz, blues, R&B, funk, soul," John says. "I think that instills itself in my playing and in the sound of the band."
After graduating from Ohio University, John turned pro. Answering an ad in The Village Voice, he landed the guitar spot with the N.Y.C.-based Little Mike & the Tornadoes, listed as "Colin Jr. Green" on the band's 1990 debut disc, Heart Attack. While he had to share the spotlight with guest heavyweights, such as Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Ronnie Earl, John represented himself well in his solo spots with some clean journeyman's work.
The stint with Little Mike gave John the chance to mingle with a number of blues notables, including one-time Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins, who continually referred to the upcoming guitarist as "Collard Greens." Eventually, John and the Tornadoes rhythm section would head off to tour the South as the Root Doctors. Discouraged after a hurricane stranded them in Florida, the threesome went their separate ways. John chose to hook up with friends in Memphis. The timing couldn't have been better.
"I was really lucky," John says. "I just went to B.B. King's [Blues Club] for like one jam, and it turns out that they needed a new band for Saturdays. I was literally there for like two or three days, and I got offered that gig."
Again, the guitarist would be consorting with major roots-music figures -- and not just backing them up. His Memphis band included such celebrated session men as Howard Grimes, on drums, and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, on rhythm guitar. (Teenie is the one playing those sweet chords on Al Green's hits.) "We played a lot of blues, but a lot of soul as well, because of Teenie and Howard," John recalls. "[Teenie's] the one who really taught me about songwriting and rhythm guitar."
John's own prowess impressed an English promoter, who offered him work. His having a British father made getting a passport and work visa easy, and John headed for the U.K. in 1992 to form the first version of the Colin John Band, which included onetime Clapton drummer Henry Spinetti. Gigs over the next decade brought him through most of Western Europe, working with plenty of new mates and landing periodic guest shots for some of his American friends, including Hodges and Buddy Guy's younger brother, Phil.
Up next for John is landing a recording deal of his own. Family matters drew him back here in 2002, so Northeast Ohio is again his base of operations. These days, with his global contacts established and several labels expressing interest, John no longer sees living in these parts a disadvantage, as he did after college. If anything, this area has become an asset.
"I've noticed this stigma since I've been back," John explains. "People [ask me], 'Why aren't you in New York, if you're such a big shot?' It's like, 'You can't be any good, because you live in Akron.' Well, I've been there, done that. I appreciate livin' in a smaller town. When I need to go creative places, I do."
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