A lot has happened to blues rock since Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton added psychedelic power to the trio format in the late '60s. Originally an amped-up version of the Memphis-Chicago blues style, blues rock took notice of free jazz on Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's 1969 Trout Mask Replica and got postmodern in the hands of such practitioners as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Since the heyday of Spencer in the '90s, blues has largely dropped its rock influences in favor of various pre-World War II styles — and that's what makes Simo's new self-titled full-length such a glorious piece of rocking blues in the tradition of Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield and other guitar-crazy heroes of the distant past.
Simo takes its name from guitarist and singer JD Simo, who was born in the capital of electric blues. "I was born and raised in Chicago, right near Wrigley Field," he says from his Nashville home. "I'd recommend it — growing up in a city is an experience that was wonderful and cultural."
The budding guitarist got exposed early to Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and other Chicago blues titans, and developed the kind of pop culture obsessions that characterize the childhoods of many future rockers. "What made me fall in love with music was Elvis, initially — I'm still obsessive-compulsive about anything," Simo says. "But I was too young to understand the humanity and the downward turn of Elvis' life. As you could probably imagine, I was not a popular kid in school."
Still, Simo developed serious guitar skills as a teenager, and began playing in bands. He was labeled a prodigy — a word Simo can't say without seeming to wince a little at its implications. "People fawned all over me, regardless of whether I was playing something of substance or not," he remembers. "That's the curse of being a prodigy."
Simo was a remarkably talented young player in the mode of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Woodshedding devoutly, Simo studied the blues playing of Bloomfield, BB King and onetime Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green. Moving to San Francisco and then to Phoenix, Simo came to Nashville in 2006, and hasn't looked back.
"I left home and went on the road when I was 15, dropped out of school," he says. "I'd been in a band for over five years and just wasn't gettin' anywhere." Securing a job with Nashville's The Don Kelley Band, Simo refined his technique under the watchful eyes and discerning ears of Kelley, whose group has graduated such celebrated pickers as Brent Mason and Guthrie Trapp.
"Don saw something in my playing that was very unrefined," says Simo. "Number one, I lacked true musical experience. He whipped me into shape, and like a good high school football coach, he rode me harder than I think anyone can be ridden."
Simo's musicality and drive led him to session work with such Nashville producers as Paul Worley, but his trio allows him to shape his musical ideas in ways that find use for all those super-charged BB King licks he's learned along the way. Simo finds bassist Frank Swart and drummer Adam Abrashoff in tune with Simo's deft combination of power chords and hot licks — the record features futuristic Chess blues workouts and cubist guitar riffs that strain against the beat.
What makes Simo work is the tension between conventional structures and an almost jazzy energy in the group's performances. "It's that element of, 'Oh fuck, what's gonna happen next?' " Swart says. A Boston native, the bassist brings an avant-garde edge to the trio that comes from his admiration for the modal jazz of such figures as John Coltrane. If Simo's axemanship covers all the bases from Pete Townshend-style power chords to delicate, watercolored solos, Swart and Abrashoff keep things moving smartly throughout the record's 39 minutes.
It's mature music that is also a lot of fun to listen to, and no mere period piece. As for Simo himself, he's only 26 — there's plenty of time to get better. As for now, he's transcended the "prodigal" label, and that's one thing the blues can do for you.