Most parents chart their child's growth from notches on the wall. Diane and Chuck Simo can follow their son Jeff's progress from the career memorabilia hanging in the family's rec room.
There's his first guitar, a toddler-size Stratocaster called the Synsonics Junior Pro. Next, the folks show a photo of 13-year-old Jeff and a real Strat, jamming onstage with surf-guitar legend Dick Dale. Then, they give you a glimpse at John Lee Hooker's autograph and a program from his funeral in San Francisco. Next to that are autographed concert posters and laminated passes from shows Jeff opened for Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Slash. The latter, Jeff nonchalantly informs, is "usually liquored up but always a great guy."
And there's the J.D. Simo discography, an EP called Burnin' Live, which sold some 5,000 copies, followed by the new One Night Stand, which features a mature, more confident J.D. looking over his shoulder, backed with national distribution by 101 Sony.
For anyone who saw that damned Crossroads movie with Ralph Macchio and thinks it's implausible that a kid barely through puberty can master blues guitar without the mentorship of a Robert Johnson doppelgänger, guess again. Jonny Lang and Chris Duarte did it in the '90s, and J.D. Simo is doing it now with nothing more supernatural than good old-fashioned parental support. Yes, parental guidance, the ingredient missing in scores of blues and rock sagas. There's nothing in young Jeff's history that even approximates pain and sorrow. For Chrissakes, he was a batboy for the San Francisco Giants!
"I happened to grow up on Halsted Street on the north side of Chicago," Simo begins. "There's two famous blues clubs, one that's just called Blues and one across the street called Kingston Mines. On a Friday or Saturday night you can just open up your window and hear music from both sides. That was my first exposure to blues. And I can remember my sister Diane used to work out to a Best of Chess Records collection when I was 2 or 3. Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Chuck Berry. So that's the first music I heard."
But nothing made Simo want to be a performer until his sister introduced him to the movie The Blues Brothers. "I played harmonica before I even knew the guitar existed. I wanted to be a Blues Brother," he says. "Then a year later, we went to Laughlin, Nevada, and I saw the Elvis impersonator show. I'm still a friend with the guy, Pete Winlock, and as a 3-year-old seeing a guy in a big white suit -- it made a big impression on me. I wanted to be Elvis so bad. I'm the type of person, I study until there's nothing left to study and then move on."
During his accelerated childhood, he'd also had a KISS phase and a Beatle phase. "You don't ever jump off the Elvis ship," Simo says. "But when I was 12 I went as far as I wanted to go with it and dedicated myself to the blues." While ambling onstage for jam nights raised his profile, he needed a permanent band to take it to the next level. But acquiring and maintaining accomplished players is tough if all you have to offer are two gigs a month. Although bassist Tom Feigenbaum has been in and out of the band for two or three years, he hadn't been able to commit fully to Simo until last year, as has drummer Todd Jewell. This meant Simo has had to sift through some less than inspiring interim players before settling on a band like his Dirty Pool that could, as he puts it, "give Double Trouble a run for their money."
"I feel blessed that I have a band I don't have to worry about. The groove is so there," Simo says, beaming. "Playing all these shows and doing tours as the three of us has been an unbelievable growing experience and made us a very tight unit. I'd be nothing without them."
At this point, Diane Simo checks in like any other mom or co-manager would when her son has guests or interviewers over. She and husband Chuck originally had plans of retiring in Arizona before Jeff came along. Chuck did eventually retire from his sports memorabilia business here, but now both parents are devoted full-time to their son's extraordinary career as an 18-year-old blues journeyman. After gently chiding said bluesman for not serving tea with a saucer, she gives props to Dirty Pool's professionalism and offers insight into the simple economics of maintaining a band with the best players.
"While we're in a position where Jeff doesn't have a house payment or car insurance, we can make the pay as equal as possible," she says, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, with one eye on the defroster. "That's the reason why we've never played for shit money because Jeff's always gotten paid the same as them and I want them all paid good. When we get to a level where there's tons of money, then yeah, he can be paid back because he has to do all the extra work like doing the phone calls and packing the trailer. That's why [the band members] respect Chuck and I as management. When the tip jar goes around, if there's 180 dollars, it's divided evenly."
One senses a bit of rancor when talk turns to the local blues and rock circuit. While Simo and Dirty Pool have been able to generate substantial profits outside of town, there are not enough lucrative gigs locally to keep the family business comfortably in the black. As a result, the band plays Prescott, Flagstaff and Cave Creek on a regular basis, but will only take occasional Scottsdale or Tempe gigs.
"There are some really good blues acts in this town and some that aren't quite up to par that'll play for $200 and ruin it for all the good bands that are trying to make a living," gripes Simo. "Club owners will book them 'cause they save money on bands that wouldn't even cut the mustard in a town like Austin. There you have one area, Sixth Street, where people can go every night of the week and there's 12 clubs in a row with unbelievable entertainment, and if they're not unbelievable, they don't get gigs. That's why it's tough to survive in a place like Austin, New York or Chicago and L.A. because if you're not good, you don't get a gig. There's so many places in Phoenix that open and close, they're all over the place."
Simo feels like a stranger in his hometown blues circuit, an estrangement of sorts that could owe to the infrastructure purists still seeing J.D. Simo as a novelty.
"I don't fit into the hard-core blues scene, the if-you're-not-12-bar-you're-not blues' scene," he says. "It's not as open as a town like Austin. There's a pecking order here, but that's true all over. There are millions of bands that try and get into the festivals. You have your set people who are gonna be your headliners. Then there are your co-headliners and your fillers. They all try to get in. Because the blues radios played One Night Stand, we've been blessed with many co-headlining spots in blues festivals."
Yet there's one festival here in Mesa he isn't even invited to.
"You can't go home," is all Simo will say.
There is still a bit of that "prove it to me" segment of the audience that Simo has to address right away, but it's lessened considerably since the gut gravel in his voice that seemed odd coming out of an adolescent seems less jarring coming out of a guy who's now taller than most of his detractors.
"I think people have seen my progression, so there's not as much of that now, the prove it to me' there was then, a very hefty amount of it," he says. "It's tough because of the age thing; you're at almost a disadvantage when people see you because their expectations are extremely high. We have a very diverse crowd. We have kids that are young who come to see me 'cause I'm young. And we have people in their middle ages who love the blues and come to see it. Older people, who saw Hendrix in the day and love that music, jam bands, because we go off on tangents. Jam banders come for that. And the musicians come. That means they're liking you for the right reasons."
Simo is still hungry enough to work for those crumbs of grudging respect. "There are so many people who I've opened for, heroes of mine, that lost that fire. It can be the fact that they've been doing it so long or it's the realization that this is as far as I can go," he opines. "That should keep you motivated. I look at every chance to play as the last time I might get to play." He remembers the Stevie Ray poster in the other room and continues. "Some musician friends that are a little older say, Well, after the first couple of songs, if they're throwing it back to me, I'll say fine. I'll lay back if that's what they want.' I'm not like that. I'm full of piss and vinegar. I'll keep going until you're gone or you're into it. Oh, you didn't get that? All right, here's some more. Didn't get that? Here's some more. I'm gonna be here all night. I'm 18 and I got a lot of energy to throw at you.
"When I listen to some tapes of old Cajun House shows, I can see that I was all about playing a million notes a minute. But I went from being a very green young guy who didn't really know how to sing, pace a set, front a band or write songs to now where I'm nothing special but I've gotten better. To tell you the truth, I don't think that much when I play. I don't think at all, really. I just play whatever comes out."
Simo's also become more comfortable writing things that fall outside the blues idiom. One Night Stand contains several songs that eschew the 1-4-5 pop format, and one honest-to-God rock ballad called "Till the Morning Comes." This week has found him recording an original called "Sooner or Later" that he likens to "a John Mayer song sort of. I love John Mayer, which my buddy Hans Olson makes fun of me for, but he writes great songs. I love that Any Given Thursday CD; you can tell the guy went to music school with those chord progressions.
"I had that riff for a long time and I didn't want to write it because I thought that's not me. It's just that thing of letting things happen. I don't have any qualms anymore. I'm not Big Pete Pearson. I like rock and a lot of other types of music. Blues-rock is what I do."
The gradual movement to more pop-oriented songwriting comes just as major-label interest is rearing its head. Jonny Lang isn't getting any younger and neither is Duarte. Looking at it in cynical A&R terms, they want to snap up J.D. while he is still young enough to turn heads in amazement. Looking at it in economical A&R terms, look how much product he's shifted without any outside help! Looking at it in pure logical terms, the staid national blues scene is due for some new blood -- and J.D. Simo is more than ready to supply the transfusion.
Originally, Simo and Dirty Pool were looking to make a live recording, but that plan has been sidelined in favor of a studio album with the live band. They've just finished rehearsing the song "Sooner or Later."
"Man," says Simo. "We cut out a verse, a bridge and an outro to try to get it under 3:23. It's at 4:23 right now.
"The 13-year-old J.D. would be throwing a fit about the cuts, but the 18-year-old Simo says it fits the song."
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