Mr. Beer Comes to Town to Play the Blues

It's not often that an Arizona blues club gets an international act for New Year's Eve, but the 44s will play the Rhythm Room in Phoenix as 2015 comes in.

Arizona blues lovers will have to enjoy the 44s while they can, because the Los Angeles-based blues-roots-rock band will tour Europe five times this coming year, including trips to the Netherlands, France, and Germany.

"New Year's Eve will be a blast," said Johnny Main, frontman for the 44s with his vocals and guitar.

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Main has played the Blues Blast Festival in Phoenix, and the 44s have two CDs out, Boogie Disease and Americana, both on Rip Cat Records.

Aside from the rocking blues music that will get everybody dancing, Main knows the importance of engaging an audience with comedy and storytelling.

"Having a good rapport with the audience calms my nerves. If they're cracking up, then I'm having a good time," Main says. "I'm a big fan of standup comedy because it makes people feel welcome. I make everybody feel comfortable like I'm playing to them in my living room."

Main came to the blues in a roundabout way. He started learning classical violin when he was 7 years old. When he was 12, Main wanted to switch to the guitar. He asked his step-dad for a guitar. The stepfather responded he would get him a guitar if he helped him paint the entire exterior of the house.

"Okay," young Johnny responded. So, Main got his guitar and then step-dad introduced him to records by BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King. Smitten, lil' Johnny looked for a guitar teacher. He found Johnny Fortune, who was an international country star during his heyday. Fortune gave Johnny two lessons.

Johnny continued to learn the guitar on his own, and three years later came back to Fortune for more lessons. After listening to Johnny play, Fortune told him that there wasn't anything he could teach him unless he wanted to learn country.

"I paid the teacher just to jam with me," Main recalls.

About eight years ago, Main stopped in to play with Fortune. Shortly after that, Fortune passed away.

Since that time, Main has become a historian of the blues researching from the old guitarists like Robert Johnson to the newer kids like Kirk Fletcher from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Guitarist Kid Ramos served as another mentor to Main and was the producer for both his CDs. Ramos recently recovered from cancer and had cancer the same time as Main's mother, who recently passed away.

"Ramos was like having an older brother, but I asked him if he could show me what he knew on the guitar and he said 'If I show you what I know I'll be out of a job,'" he said.

In Europe, Main is getting the nickname of Mr. Beer. He was in Switzerland last month and was frustrated because they didn't have a beer that tasted like Bud Light. He was trying every beer he could find without success -- and in Switzerland, that can be an experience because the beers there commonly run 10-12 percent alcohol. When the 44s would play festivals in Switzerland, they would get all the beer they wanted for free.

"After two or three beers, your taste buds would go numb because their beers were so potent," he said.

On their last night in Switzerland, the 44s ended up at a high class restaurant. Everyone else was drinking fine wine or champagne, but Main asked the waiter for beer.

"Okay," the waiter responded in his Swiss accent.

"I was the only guy drinking beer. I was doing my own thing. When they asked the others for seconds, again I said I wanted beer," Main said.

"Alright Mr. Beer," the waiter responded and so his nickname was dubbed.

While Main may love his beer, the question is whether the newest member of the band is old enough to drink beer. Jacob Huffman, who some say is 21, recently joined the band as its harmonica player. Huffman started playing when he was 5 years old and had the luck to have Rod Piazza as his mentor.

"Jacob learned to play our two albums in two days," Main said.

The other two members of the band are seasoned veterans Jason Lozano on drums and Mike Hightower on bass. The 44s have been together for ten years, but Main and Lozano have performed together for 20 years.

Catch the 44s at Rhythm Room on Wednesday, December 31.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Stan Bindell