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Clubland: Guitarist F. Alex Johnson releases CD with new trio, Colorway



Last modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013
Guitarist F. Alex Johnson started his musical path early in life, playing violin in first grade — though he eventually stuck a Harley-Davidson skull sticker on his instrument case “to try and make it a little more rock-and-roll.” (A hint of things to come.)

Christmas 1980 was momentous for the then 10-year-old Johnson in his Fall River home: His loving mother gave him a kid-sized Castilla acoustic guitar. He’d already been holding his violin like a guitar, plucking out notes; it didn’t take long for him to decide he preferred the real thing.

Freshman year in high school found him in his first band, named CIA, which stood for Creative Image Artists. “I came up with a logo and everything,” Johnson said with a memory-lane grin during an interview last week.

He reminisced about the day he grabbed his guitar and small amplifier and descended into the drummer’s basement for his first-ever, full-on band rehearsal — “rockin’ out — it was the best feeling in the entire universe,” he said.

“We ended up playing one of the school dances, which was a bit of a catastrophe, but we did it. I said, ‘I have to do this forever.’ ”

Johnson has held onto that passion for making music, and this year marks a milestone for the guitarist, best known for his time in the Drunk Stuntmen (which he co-founded, but left in 2008) and the Young@Heart Chorus band (of which this writer is also a current member) — he’s started his first “real” project, a trio called Colorway.

It’s a uniting of longtime musical friends. Bassist Dave Hayes first played with Johnson at the Hadley Pub in 1991, right after the guitarist moved to the Valley; drummer J.J. O’Connell spent years behind the kit for the Stuntmen.

The threesome celebrate the release of Colorway’s self-titled debut CD with a show at the Iron Horse in Northampton Saturday at 10 p.m. Dave Houghton will start off the night with a solo performance.

When Johnson was asked what made him decide to move into the spotlight now, with his own band and his own songs, he said, “I lived my 20s for 20 years,” he said.

“Turning 40 was a big change for me. You start to feel mortality,” he added. “I won’t say you start to feel time ticking away a little bit louder ... but you kind of do. The seasons move faster. I didn’t want to play ‘making a band.’ I really wanted to do this the right way, and do it all the way.”

That newfound sense of purpose is apparent from the album’s forceful first sounds — a distorted, crunching guitar and Johnson’s impassioned voice: “I’ve never felt this before / These eyes won’t ever be the same / I am ready.”

The song is “I’m Still Running,” and its last line is “How the hell am I alive?” Johnson gave some background on the tumult he went through as 2007 turned into 2008.

“I got into a little bit of legal trouble, and it was just time: I had to stop drinking, stop smoking, stop everything, and try life as-is. I got sober. It was on the heels of my mom dying, who was my everything.”

Death is the underlying subject of the upbeat, power-chord-filled “This Happens To Everyone,” a song inspired by one of Johnson’s long-ago ex-bandmates, a drummer who’d stayed in Fall River, “lived hard” and was suddenly gone at age 43. “He was the first of my contemporaries to pass away, and that really shocked me,” he said.

The varied album, recorded in full-spectrum sound by Mark Alan Miller (another recurring collaborator in Johnson’s musical life), includes the folky fingerpicked “Everyone Makes the Day,” the jazzy lullaby “Go Back To Sleep,” plenty of big rock and inspired electric guitar solos but also a solo acoustic instrumental, “For the Birds,” which holds its own among the louder numbers just like Steve Howe’s “Mood For a Day” did on Yes’ classic “Fragile” album.

And the closing song, the nearly eight-minute “A Temporary Occupation,” lifts the album to another place. The shifting chords are beautiful and the striking string section, arranged by Dave Trenholm, makes the song seem related to Love’s “You Set the Scene,” but with a darkening sky, a heavy heart and a coda that sounds like a slow sink into the quicksand.

“This is a temporary occupation because we are occupying this life for however long,” Johnson said. “It could end tomorrow, it could end in 40 years. Hopefully we get good at it and enjoy it to its fullest before we go. I know some people who went through life seemingly on a treadmill, never really enjoyed things, never really figured out that life is here to live.”

“I try not to preach,” he added, “but I tried to make this record a bit of a living will, or just a reference point so I can look back and say, ‘This is how I was feeling, this was the clarity that I saw.’ And hopefully the clarity will continue.”