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"A&R guys would shake our hands and tell us how wonderful we were," Manson muses. "People from labels liked to come and listen all the time. Perhaps the thinking was 'Why sign this music when I can hear it every night of the week?'"
At the time, several scouts compared Manson to Huey Lewis, then wildly popular with the yuppie set. "That's because we both have raspy baritones. His stuff's a lot more happy than mine," Manson says. Unlike touchier artists, Jono takes such comparisons in stride. "When people in bars like you, they compare you to someone they know. You shouldn't treat that as a negative thing. In their minds, they're giving you the biggest compliment they know how. In my case, I get compared to Bruce Springsteen back East, while out here [in the Southwest], it's Stevie Ray Vaughan."
By 1992, the grind of playing the same rooms night after night with no major-label validation had taken all the toll Manson was willing to pay, and the singer moved to Tesuque, a rural area near Santa Fe, "somewhere where the quality of life is better."
"Santa Fe's been good for my songwriting, whereas in New York, for the whole last year, I was stagnant."
In recent years, Tesuque has been practically overrun with Hollywood film crews, and one of Manson's more intriguing recent extracurricular activities was teaching guitar to Kevin Costner when the actor was in town to shoot Wyatt Earp.
So how did Costner fare?
Manson is loath to betray the tutor-student code of silence. "Well, he's a beginning guitar player, you know ..."
Incessant prodding eventually gets Manson to 'fess up: Costner specifically wanted to learn "Silver Wings" by Merle Haggard. "I'm not sure if it was for a movie."
While Costner's career went through some, uh, turbulent waters this year, it's been smooth sailing for Manson's famous friends in Blues Traveler. A recent cartoon in the business section of USA Today depicted an ebullient John Popper being ushered into the Rock and Roll Bank while a downcast Rod Stewart was tossed out on his starry behind. The inference was clear: Classic rock has finally reached its saturation point.
The over-25 set still wants simple, familiar rock 'n' roll, but it's finally sick of regurgitated geezer rock.
This inevitable (yet long overdue) turn of the tide has had the strange side effect of propelling roots rock onto the alternative airwaves. A&M plans to exploit this window of opportunity and pitch Almost Home to "adult alternative" and mainstream radio formats alike, with a single to come the first week of January.
For now, the label is pressing cassettes to give away at the Blues Traveler shows and using BT's 30,000-name mailing list to make Traveler fans aware of the band's first-ever outside project--and, more important, the overlooked talent of a worthy peer.
"From past experience with Blues Traveler and playing the main stage at the H.O.R.D.E. shows, my music does appeal to their audience, no problem," Manson says. "If this record is given a chance, hopefully my audience will appear."
Four went platinum during the recording sessions for Manson's debut, and Blues Traveler had to leave in the middle of tracking to appear on the MTV Video Music Awards. Rather than sounding like the work of a singer-songwriter backed by harried superstars with one eye on the clock, however, Almost Home exhibits the confident strut of a band playing as one. Manson attributes the cohesive sound to a three-week tour in February that he, Kinchla, Sheehan, and Jono Manson Band drummer Mark Clark undertook during Blues Traveler's annual late-winter downtime.
"The nature of the material jelled with this lineup. I let Bobby and Chan pick a few of my older songs I probably wouldn't have thought of, like 'Hanging Out for Your Love,' which goes back to the Worms days." That tune is a worthy candidate for a single. So is "Big Daddy Blues," a song penned by fellow Nightingale alumnus Joe Flood that reprises the "A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H" hook from "IGot a Girl in Kalamazoo" in a bone-crunching fashion. Also notable is the album's title track, which proceeds in the quiet dignity of a great Arthur Alexander composition. On it, Manson sounds like a man at peace with where he's been, where he's headed, and the long road in between. Yes, it would appear Manson is finally out of the woods and almost home.
Well, not quite.
"This year, I sort of made an attempt to separate my business and my home life," he cracks. "So I've got this little office in town where I make my calls and where the band rehearses. The end result is--I'm never home."
The Jono Manson Band is scheduled to perform on Sunday, November 19, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with Blues Traveler. Sold out.