Plenty of post–Stevie Ray Vaughan guitarists can approximate the blues virtuoso’s tone and style. What they largely lack is his ability to attack every note as if it might be their last.
J.D. Simo sounds nothing like the Texas legend, but his guitar work has the same urgency and ferocity. His performances exhibit his go-for-broke style of playing and singing, as well as a relentless musical exploration that alludes to British power trios, southern rock, psychedelic soul and, most recently, the Grateful Dead. That adventurous spirit has been in evidence on Simo’s studio albums, including his latest, Off at 11 (Crows Feet).
“I originally wanted to make a traditional ’50s-style blues record,” Simo says of the new release. “I started working in my basement with gear that would yield the sound I wanted. I’d cut either stuff I’d written or tunes by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Earl Hooker and Magic Sam.
“Then, last summer, Phil Lesh called me to play with Phil Lesh and Friends. In the middle of a tour I realized that, though I love old blues music, I also love going-to-Mars, freak-flag-fly music. I was conflicted about it, but Phil said, ‘Why don’t you do both?’”
Thus, Off at 11 features a version of “Sweet Little Angel” that B.B. King would be proud of, as well as the 16-minute-plus jam “Accept” and the title tune, both of which nod to East-West–era Butterfield Blues Band, free jazz and the Dead. “I have versions of both those tunes from years ago,” Simo acknowledges. “But these are way better because I’m older and freer in a way.”
As the former star of Don Kelly’s legendary country band on Nashville’s Broadway strip, Simo may have made a name for himself with honky-tonkers, but he is clearly steeped in the blues. His deepening love of lesser-known Chicago artists like Earl Hooker and Magic Sam led him to set up his home studio old-school style. “My little drum hut was influenced by Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios,” he says. “I hung blankets, set up road cases as gobos and used the bathroom as an echo chamber. I bought a funky old console that has eight channels, so that’s the most I can record at one time. I usually use a dynamic Sennheiser Evolution E664 or an old Shure Unidyne on the guitar amp. I never close-mic anymore; it’s always several feet back. I built a baffle so it doesn’t leak into the drums. There is no cue system, so you can’t use headphones. We record at fairly low volume.”
Most of Off at 11 was cut with the band playing together, and with some original live vocals left intact. But while he is respectful of the old tunes and recording methods, Simo is not a purist. “There’s a bunch of Magic Sam songs we play live that I don’t want to reinterpret because I love them so much,” he explains. “But then there’s others I can have some fun with.” On his original tribute to Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Mind Trouble,” what sounds like a backward part is actually the Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer pedal. “I love the bass synth pedal because it’s voiced for the low frequencies and doesn’t track guitar frequencies right,” Simo explains. “It’s just delaying the attack.”
The main acoustic guitar on that song is a Waterloo strung with D’Addario .012s. “I hate new strings on acoustic,” he says. “I let them go as long as possible. It breaks my heart, because they sound the best right when they’re going to break, and then I have to start the process over again.”
Unusually, the acoustic was played through an amp, in this case a Guild Thunderbird of ’63 or ’64 vintage. “It’s my secret weapon,” Simo says. “Michael Bloomfield used the Thunderbird with Paul Butterfield, and Magic Sam had one too. It’s basically Guild’s version of a Fender Deluxe Reverb, but instead of 6V6 tubes it uses 7591s, because it’s like an Ampeg circuit. It has a 12-inch speaker that only the dry signal comes through, while the reverb comes out of an eight-inch speaker. It’s like a dual-amp dry/wet sound, but coming out of one cabinet. When you turn the tremolo on, it too only comes out of the 12-inch speaker. Distant miked, it has this beautiful 3-D thing.”
For “You Need Love,” Simo switches amps to a cranked-up “Frankenstein” Fender Super Reverb. “I have several old Supers and took the best head from one, the best speakers from another and the best reverb tank from a third to make my favorite one. Even though my amps are always cranked, I’m rarely all the way up on the guitar, but I am on that song, so it almost sounds like fuzz. I might play all the way up if I’m playing slide, but as I get more into the Earl Hooker thing, I find I’m playing cleaner slide.”
Though a ’52 Gibson ES-5 and the Waterloo show up here and there, the main guitar on Off at 11 is Simo’s trusty Red, a 1962 Gibson ES-335 he’s had since his first record. Listening to “Sweet Little Angel” reveals it has an electronically out-of-phase option. “I had Joe Glaser put a push-pull switch on one of the tone controls,” he says. “He took the neck pickup apart and put a terminal in it so that we could knock it out of phase. Freddie King, B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Pee Wee Crayton, T-Bone Walker, Peter Green and Lowell Fulson had that sound. It’s also on a lot of the later funk stuff, like Little Beaver [a.k.a Willie Hale], down in Miami. You either like it or you don’t. I love it.”
These days, Simo’s acoustic playing has expanded beyond a few tracks on a record or a specialty slot in his show. He’s been playing a lot of flat-top as he tours the country opening solo for acoustic phenom Tommy Emmanuel. “It’s terrifying to get up before Tommy, but the first tour I did last year was the impetus to do whatever I felt like outside of a democratic band environment,” Simo reveals. “If I wanted to sit down and play John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins, I did. If I wanted to play electric solo and play some Curtis Mayfield, I did.”
For those gigs and for the occasional acoustic tune he performs with his band, Simo amplifies the Waterloo with a Trance Audio Amulet pickup. “It’s the best-sounding pickup I’ve ever heard,” he says. “It’s an undersaddle, but part of it is attached to the top as well. I prefer to split it into a D.I. that goes to the house and to an amplifier for the Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff.”
Simo says his next record is likely to be a more traditional blues album and will probably come out later this year. He adds that he and Luther Dickinson have a side project they work on whenever they share a spare moment. For better or worse, the modern music business has largely mothballed the cycle of releasing an album and touring, and Simo is happy that his arrangement with Crows Feet allows him to set a more contemporary schedule.
“They’re into me putting stuff out often,” he says. “We can cut something, mix it and send it off to be mastered in a day.” And if the eight songs and 53 minutes on Off at 11 leave you wanting more, a link on Simo’s website (at simo.fm/music) will take you to a Soundcloud page of content — including jams, demos, and tunes with Dickinson and Emmanuel — that’s updated every two weeks. “I buy vinyl all the time and stream constantly,” Simo explains. “So I tend to think, What if I were selling to me?”