Jono Come Not So Lately

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.

"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.


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