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I Can See Cleary Now

Looking for clarity? Blues Festival opener Jon Cleary doles it out like beads during Mardi Gras, direct from his front porch in the French Quarter

By Mike Connor

As with any good mixtape, it's important to set the tone of the thing early on. Enter London-born Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, who bring the best of New Orleans blues, soul, R&B and a gigantic helping of funk to open up this year's Blues Festival on Saturday, May 29. Plus, they've got a frontman more articulate than some of the best politicians, except without all the double-talk and lies. We spoke to him from his home in New Orleans about everything from blues music as punk to the curse of inspiration, so get acquainted and into the groove with Bonnie Raitt's favorite keyboardist and this year's festival opener, Mr. Jon Cleary.

On starting off playing punk rock, and its connection to the blues: "The only thing they have in common was an intensity of performance, but [punk] music was absolutely dreadful. I can't believe I spent my money on Headbanger and the Nosebleeds records, they were the most appalling records. But they had the spirit of rock & roll, which was enormously thrilling at that age. Punk at the time was set up as a reaction against bands like Fleetwood Mac, monster dinosaur bands making the most complacent music--boring, twiddly-widdly music. With punk, people would get up onstage and they couldn't play their instruments--musically it was atrocious--but they played with great, sweaty spirit. In New Orleans, 60-year-old men were doing the same thing, but the difference was they could really play. The only similarity was the intensity. When I get up to play with my band, one thing people dig is that we work hard and really get stuck in it. It's a workout, and it's exhausting."

On the rebirth of the jam band: "It's funny now, because here in New Orleans, it has become a pop destination for the jam band stuff, and for me the jam band is a horrible rebirth of all the things--the gentle self-indulgence--that punk set out to destroy, really."

On the traveling caveman uncle: "He was a caveman for a while. It was always very exciting when Uncle John would turn up unannounced after a couple of years. He'd put some amazing music on, pick up the guitar and start playing some songs; he's a real inspiration. Growing up, I was very, very fortunate--my dad was also a musician, my mum was a big influence on the whole family, she had boyfriends who were jazz musicians, and I had another uncle who was in the merchant navy, he would come back with obscure New Orleans jazz records that were yet to be released in England. [My family] were all passionate about music; I was just like a sponge as a little kid, soaking up everything I could. It was perfect preparation to come to New Orleans."

On the University of Funk: "My first two years in New Orleans, it was like I was a student at the University of Funk. I did what I could to make a living--construction work, whatever I could do to stay alive--and I would spend money seeing Lee Dorsey, the Neville Brothers, Jesse Hill. And James Booker used to play in my local bar every Tuesday. I started playing guitar as a baby, so I knew my way around it, but it was starting to bore me. The challenge was the piano, and of course New Orleans has a fantastic piano tradition, the syncopated aspect, the funk and the Latin influences ... piano was perfect vehicle for exploring that stuff. But I felt it was a bit presumptuous to get up with any of these guys I had enormous respect for. So I spent a lot of time doing my homework, playing for five or six hours after work, then going out and listening to a band till 4 in the morning. When I came back [from England], at that point I felt equipped and confident to go out and start hustling gigs, people like Johnny Adams and Walter Washington, and some solo piano gigs."

On musical vocabulary: "When I started out, I had to absorb different influences. I spent a lot of time getting a thorough grounding in the traditions and the history of the music, learning how to disassemble the music and how to put it back together again, basically learning a vocabulary. That takes years and years and years and years, and it occupies all my waking hours just thinking about music. It's a bit like learning a language in that you learn different aspects of the thing concurrently, but the first thing is to assemble a large musical vocabulary, and then there's a gradual shift when you're finding your own voice and using that vocabulary to express something of yours."

On intuition and math music: "I don't think they're mutually exclusive--you rely on intuition to follow a certain musical process. Music is different things to different people, but for me it's this most beautiful blend of advanced mathematics and pure abstract artistic inspiration. People I admire the most are people who combine those two things. With some primitive form of blues music, it moves you enormously, but nobody would argue the guy who's producing it is a virtuoso. On the other hand you have people studying theory but have no intuition, they can play the twiddly-widdly million notes a second, you can't deny they're technically brilliant, but it leaves you cold. I've striven to try to find some kind of medium, combining musical excellence--even if I fall way short of that--and marry it with something intangible, beautiful and inspired, where I get into this lovely sort of dream state and it's like somebody else takes over and you're a conduit, some abstract idea comes to you at that moment, and it's pure, sublime inspiration."

On the curse of inspiration: "If you're a musician, the problem is, if you dedicate your life trying to figure out what it is about music, in that journey you inevitably get exposed to situations of amazing musical highs. Subsequently, everything after that is not quite good enough. Being inspired, the curse is that there's a lot of music that leaves me completely cold, because there's not enough hours in the day to listen to all good music made, and it puzzles me to live in a world barraged with such huge volumes of mediocrity."

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From the May 19-26, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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