Jono Come Not So Lately

H.O.R.D.E. mentor Jono Manson goes nationwide with a li'l help from his friends in Blues Traveler

Attention, CD shoppers: Manson may be lurking somewhere in your disc collection.

If you're one of the four million souls to throw down for a copy of Blues Traveler's Four so far, cue up the last cut on the album ("Brother John") and wait for one Jono Manson to make his grand vocal entrance. Oh, yeah--and be patient.

"As you can hear, I'm prominently featured on the last 30 seconds of the album," the perky rocker explains. "But it's a climactic point in the record."

Luckily, it looks like Manson's time in the spotlight is far from up. A onetime New Yorker who now calls Tesuque, New Mexico, home, Jono recently spent a dizzying week flying to and from Los Angeles to meet with Mike Regan, his "product manager" to discuss marketing strategies for his soon-to-be-released major-label debut. Regan also took the newly signed singer on a meet-and-greet blitz of the A&M Records corporate complex. If there was a photocopier repairman in the building that day, chances are he pressed palms with Jono.

From the brass on down, Manson says, everyone at his label seemed committed (make that pumped) to get behind Almost Home, which is due out December 5--three weeks after the Jono Manson Band took over the opening slot for the Western leg of Blues Traveler's current tour.

Besides showcasing Manson's whiskey-kissed vocals and gut-bucket guitar riffing, Almost Home features Blues Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan playing back-up on every cut. Even with several harmonica cameos by Traveler harp honcho John Popper and production work by BT board man Mike Barbiero, however, Home is hardly an ersatz Blues Traveler album.

"I got a feeling a lot of people will come into this album thinking that," Manson predicts. "But they'll ultimately realize it's a great blend of what I do and what those guys do."

Vive la difference: Whereas Popper often uses his intricate lyrics to establish a rhythm, Manson uses words as a way to make your acquaintance. Most of his tunes are almost conversational in nature, a result of his extensive experience on the bar circuit, where you are required to extend the good-time feeling over several grueling hours--or else.

Manson is no Jono-come-lately. He's been making gutsy, groove-oriented rock for the better part of two decades as a member of the semilegendary New York outfit Joey Miserable and the Worms, and later the Mighty Sweetones. It was somewhere in the middle of Manson's tenure with those rockin' R&B outfits that some high school students in a band called Blues Traveler started showing up to hear him week after week.

"That was the beginning of our association," Manson reminisces, adding a wistful sliver of Spin Doctors trivia for effect: "Back then, the Spin Doctors didn't even exist. Blues Traveler used to let [SD front man] Chris Barron play acoustic guitar in between sets, but nobody ever paid attention to him."

Any PR man worth his weight in hyperbole would be all over Manson's story--how he befriended and granted crucial opening slots to both of the future platinum recording acts that, a decade later, would sell out hundreds of arenas nationwide as co-headliners of the groundbreaking H.O.R.D.E. jam-band festival tours.

In addition, Manson's acoustic ensemble, the Les Ismore Orchestra, provided the public's first glimpse of current rising star Joan "One of Us" Osborne.

Most of Manson's "Tomorrow's Heavies Tonight" series took place in the Nightingale Bar, an intimate watering hole on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that looks and feels more than a bit like Long Wong's in Tempe. Like Wong's, the Nightingale had a large picture window behind the stage that looked out onto a busy street. But instead of carefree ASU students strolling by and peeking in, the view at the Nightingale was of volatile drug busts, homeless people huddling over steam grates, and the occasional derelict knife fight.

Eventually, the window got bricked over and the Worms, whose members would pass a hat around the audience at Nightingale's and often not get it back, started charging the band's sizable following a cover to get in. "We blazed a trail," Manson says slyly. "All across the land, bands looked at one another and said, 'You mean we can charge for this?'"

Bill Barrett, now a writer in Santa Fe, tended bar at "the Gale" from 1987 to 1990. He says the kind of record-company signing frenzy that descended on the famous downtown NYC venue CBGB's during punk's heyday long eluded the Nightingale bands.

"The basic theme of that scene was that it was an equally vital musical movement that was being overlooked," Barrett recalls. "Nightingale's only begins to resemble the CBGB's story if you tack five or ten years onto the time between when the bands started playing there and when they got signed."

Between punk and Blues Traveler, the only New York acts to score a deal with the majors were neofolkies such as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. That's one hell of a dearth for Big Apple rock music. Where were all the A&R guys? Evidently hanging out at the Gale, getting bombed, digging the Worms and forgetting their pens at home.

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