SIMOPhoto courtesy Ed Rode
Anyone could start treading dangerous ground quickly should they try to strike up comparisons to guitar legends such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Warren Haynes, Eric Clapton and Joe Bonamassa when describing a lesser-known guitarist’s talent level and potential. Such analogies are often unfair and, quite frankly, unwarranted in many cases. However, as it applies to the Nashville-based guitar-playing dynamo J.D. Simo, truer lines of of direct association couldn’t be more apt.
Simo and his bandmates Adam Abrashoff (drums) and Elad Shapiro (bass) comprise the power trio known simply as SIMO.
The band is a rock, blues, psychedelia and even jazz based oriented outfit that seem to have been spit out of a 60’s or 70’s time warp and given a singular mission by the music gods regarding the band’s time on Earth: To melt faces.
"Phenomenal", "stupefying" and "unwonted" would be entirely appropriate superlatives used in describing the sublime musicianship these three extraordinary individuals are capable of producing when recording or playing on the lighted stage with one another.
SIMO’s recently released sophomore LP Let Love Show The Way is blistering, soulful, foot-stomping and downright inspiring. The album is ripe with an earthquake of guitar bombast and infectious melodies while at the same time also being diverse and eclectic in its overall soundscape and presentation.
The record offers up something for music aficionados touching on everything from traditional Mississippi blues, 60’s blues rock, 70’s retro rock and even at times 90’s era grunge. Despite all of this homage SIMO sounds above all else like, well SIMO, as all of these influences combine to to create a one-of-kind musical experience that not only has to be heard but literally seen in live setting to be truly appreciated. J.D. SimoPhoto courtesy Charles Daughtry Front Row Focus caught up with the band’s namesake, guitarist, vocalist and defacto leader J.D. Simo via telephone a few days ahead of his band’s headlining gig this upcoming Thursday, February 4th, at the Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
SIMO’s latest record was the band’s first major label release. I was curious to hear from Simo, who has an affinity for the “do-it-yourself mentality” as it applies to the music industry, how the band’s relationship with the Mascot Label Group came about as well as how and why it works.
“I have Joe Bonamassa to thank. It’s all his fault.", Simo said while laughing. He (Bonamassa) has been partnered with Mascot for well over a dozen years. About a year ago Joe asked us to play on his cruise, but he had never seen the band perform live, and he ended up being really impressed.”
Simo continued, “Me personally, I value spontaneity and kind of deconstructing the mythic thing of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a record. To me it’s much more important to get the vibe right and try and capture good performances.”
Wrapping a bow on the topic Simo concluded, “Mascot’s long standing relationship of building an act over a long period of time and doing it from a hard ticket sales perspective out where you just put your nose down and do the work. Their philosophy just saw eye to eye with ours. It’s been a perfect marriage and it’s been wonderful.”
SIMO already had an album completed at the time of their signing with Mascot, however, the version of Let Love Show The Way that was released late last month turned out being nearly an entirely different LP than the one the band and the label had initially planned on moving forward with. SIMO’s follow up to their self-titled 2012 debt would actually come to be organically recorded in Macon, Georgia at the famed Allman Brothers Big House.
“I wanted to pick a location that I thought was cool and that we could get some good work done in. The Big House just seemed to make the most sense and it worked out,” Simo reasoned.
Initially the label’s intent was to only have the band lay down a few bonus tracks for the new record inside the hallowed dwelling where Dickey Betts penned “Blue Sky” and “Ramblin’ Man” many years ago. As Simo and his bandmates began the recording process something unexpected happened and what would eventually become Let Love Show The Way began to take on a different form.
Speaking about the band’s time inside the Big House, Simo commented, “So we worked and got a ton of stuff done in two days and it just really flowed and felt great. After the fact when I went in to mix the stuff it was apparent that so much of what we captured was really good and in some ways better than what we had in the can.”
Concerning approaching the label with the idea of taking Let Love Show The Way in a new direction, Simo recalled, “I approached them and said, 'Listen, we got a lot of work done, I think it’s really really good and I would like to propose presenting you with a new version of the record.' And, they loved it.”
The concept of recording music outside the constraints of a traditional studio environment is not foreign to Simo. Even the songs that appear on Let Love Show The Way that weren’t captured during the band’s 48 hours in Macon were recorded in a house in Nashville.
“I enjoy the guerrilla aspect of recording things. I can get a real big buzz by getting in a space that is not a studio and seeing what you can get out of it both sonically and vibe-wise.”
Simo also weighed in on how some of rock music’s royalty applied this very same principle in regards to the recording process.
“I’m very influenced by my heroes like the Rolling Stones who perfected it first when they started recording at Mick Jagger’s house which they called Stargroves and where they cut a lot of Let It Bleed.”
“Zeppelin did it famously for most of their records at Headley Grange and the Beatles Let IT Be was recorded on a roof top and in the Apple Studio which was really just a basement not an actual studio at the time.”
Any individual that has seen SIMO perform live can attest to that fact that you should come to expect the unexpected. The band is an improvisational whirlwind, seemingly taking pride in presenting their fans unique takes on their music every time they take to the stage.
“That’s the core of what we do. The band was formed out of improvisation. Even the songs that we do that I would call structured, it’s our aim in a jazz context to allow the material to be interpreted differently every night and that’s really hard to do. But it’s a really good challenge for us to push ourselves because it really leads to wonderful moments.”
Although Let Love Show The Way is full of crunching guitar riffs and fast-passed numbers, the album offers listeners a few divergent tracks that provide depth and variance that also help to make the record feel like a more complete musical experience.
One such track would be SIMO’s take on the 1971 Cowboy and Duane Allman effort, “Please Be With Me”.
“I wanted to do something as kind of an homage to Duane (Allman) and his influence on me but I wanted to do it in tasteful way. I also wanted to do something to commemorate being here in his old house.”
Further explaining, Simo said, “Even though I play through big amplifiers I have a great love for gentle things, I like things that have an ebb and flow and that song really appealed to me. I think a record like a live show should have dynamic range so to me it seemed like a good way to achieve that.”
Another song on the record, Elmore James’ “Stranger Blues” also may be one that not every SIMO fan would expect the band to take a run at, let alone choose to serve as the new album’s opener.
“I love Elmore James. There’s a couple of songs in his repertoire where he does this samba kind of feel most notably on “Stranger Blues” and his version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. Those songs always appealed to me in Elmore’s catalogue because they were different and apart from his overall repertoire.”
As far as having James’ song serve as the first track on the new record, Simo went on to explain, “A lot of records open with a very aggressive big bang but I love the way George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass opens.”
“You think it would open with “My Sweat Lord “or “Wah-Wah” but it opens with “I’d Have You Anytime”, this beautiful little ballad and I like that. I thought it would be great to open the record with something that wasn’t as aggressive and “Stranger Blues” just kind of creeps in and builds in dynamic over the course of the song.”
SIMO is by no means a one-man guitar-based wrecking crew. The fact is the two additional players in the band are beyond adroit, with their contributions going a long way in ensuring SIMO rises above most if not all of the vintage sounding blues rock bands seemingly popping out of countless live music venues these days.
“It’s a group of three equals. Adam, he’s the consummate improviser and “jazzer” of the group. If all he ever did was play jazz he’d be a happy man. With him he doesn’t always play like a rock drummer, he approaches things from a swingy standpoint. He’s always going to interpret something differently than I would.”
Talking further about his fellow bandmates, Simo commented, “Elad is the heart and soul of the band. He’s very concerned with everything being truthful. I’m pretty anal and OCD about making sure things are as good as they could be but he’ll take it to another level. He’s always the one trying to make something better for the audience. When it comes to composition he’s even much more of a riff generator than I am.”
Concluding his thoughts on the topic, Simo said, “The three of us are very different people but when we come together it works. We respect it, meaning that we don’t take it for granted that you can get in a room with people and make music, it’s something that’s a gift. We’re like brothers. We fight like brothers and we love each other like brothers. It’s very much a gang.”
Simo and his band are clearly musicians’ musicians that live and breathe to create and to perform with one another.
“You have to do it because you can’t not do it. You play because you have to. That’s the common trait and that’s what a musician is. The other aspect of the music business is something that I don’t understand or even care all that much about because it’s not something that concerns me,” said Simo while letting out a big laugh.
SIMO - Let Love Show The Way
Next to nothing in this world can be guaranteed anymore but the upward trajectory of SIMO seemingly will not be derailed. The band will most assuredly be sharing bigger stages with equally talented peers such as Tedeschi Trucks, Gov’t Mule, Gary Clark Jr. and others in the very near future.
That being said do yourself a favor and take in one of SIMO’s awe-inspiring live performances in an intimate setting while you still can, as your opportunity to do so is literally dwindling by the minute. Tick, tick, tick.