Upon seeing Texas rockers Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights play Mississippi Studios last Thursday, I can’t get the thought out of my mind: how much should what we know about an artist affect how we perceive his music?
Take Amy Winehouse, for example. Although I can’t deny that “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab” are catchy tunes, hearing them on the radio used to always conjure up paparazzi depictions in my head of the woman post-altercation or marching around disoriented in her bra with a liquor bottle in hand. The press painted her as proud of her afflictions, whether she really felt that way or not, and among my complex feelings toward her was judgment. It was difficult to allow myself to enjoy her songs. At the same time, I acknowledged that many revered artists lived excessive lifestyles, and what did that fact have to do with the music, anyway?
Then, a few weeks before Winehouse’s death, I was perusing a gift shop on upper Hawthorne and heard a classic-sounding soul record playing, featuring a woman with a leathery, sultry jazz voice. I was almost certain it was Adele, although I thought I had heard most of Adele’s official recordings. The production of the album sounded like pure ’60s soul. I really dug it, so I inquired with the cashier. He fumbled through a pile of things to uncover a coworker’s iPod and informed me I was listening to Amy Winehouse.
Of course, his response sent my mind flying through a series of judgments until I told my brain to shut the hell up and accept that the woman has talent. And, once again, why couldn’t I separate the persona from the art?
Last Thursday, a group of us arrived at Mississippi Studios during a set change and stumbled upon Jonathan Tyler of Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights (JTNL) sitting casually on the merchandise table catching up with some radio folks. Among them was Ditch, former program director for the now defunct KUFO FM, who predicted less than a year ago that the fresh-faced JTNL would soon explode on to the mainstream rock scene.
Ditch introduced me to Tyler, and, having seen his electrifying southern rock show before, I (half) jokingly invited him to play a house party. “You wouldn’t mind working for beer, would you?” I asked, chuckling. Tyler shrugged and mumbled something like, “It’s not much different than what I do now.” My heart sank a little as Tyler’s girlfriend added that JTNL played around 280 shows in the last year and are getting a bit tired of seeing little financial payoff.
I have to say that knowing Tyler’s negative attitude prior to the show bummed me out. How could he possibly deliver a great set to his audience with that mindset?
A scant crowd of about twenty people made up the audience. It was a quiet Thursday night, and I knew for a fact that nearly half of the audience got in to the show for free. Tyler probably had a good reason to feel disgruntled. The band knocked out the first song, the title track of their latest album on F-Stop Music, Pardon Me.
To my surprise, Tyler and the band immediately brought the energy for which they are known. The bassist played short, emphatic notes like funky, led popcorn rhythmically layering underneath heavy introductory tidal waves of electric guitar. Tyler, sporting a warped, Huck Finn hat over long, free-flowing, brown hair, a snug white t-shirt with a metal chain necklace, Bob Dylan skinny jeans and scuffed boots, assumed his alter ego as a dynamic rock front man. He opened his mouth and busted out the following words as if he’d been waiting ten years to tell us:
maybe its been too long
since rock n roll
turned you on
so pardon me
won’t you pardon me
just let it set you free baby if you don’t mind let it take you on a ride
So pardon me
Wont you pardon me
A friend of mine turned to me, admiring Tyler’s uninhibited expression and declared, “He doesn’t give a SHIT!”
We swayed our hips to eager eighth notes on the tambourine and banged our heads to resolute drum beats while Tyler bore the cigarette ashes of his soul, mouth open like Steven Tyler and screaming like James Brown. Each song was a party, and the band only slowed down occasionally for some sexy, syncopated jams and guitar solos. Tyler gave other band members intense stares during the breakdowns, sweat rolling down each of their faces as they connected and improvised infectious riffs.
Tyler also played a mean harmonica. He always initiated it slowly, warming up the engine residing in his lungs. When he got it going, the crowd cheered as notes twisted and rolled around furiously like someone trying to escape a straitjacket. The coinciding lead guitar talked like a southern preacher sick of the Texas heat, and when the songs threatened to end, the guitar always had to get in one last, exhaustive word.
Unbridled southern rock met rhythm and blues, channeling Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, and the Stones. It was so engaging partly because it was so familiar. At one point, I thought, “Did I hear him say ‘Hot Sake’ or ‘Brown Sugar’?” But they added small, unique touches, like the band singing falsetto in unison at the height of a chorus, or taking moments to spotlight the stylish backup singer Mo Brown, who unexpectedly broke into a rap that brought my feet off the floor.
It was like the twenty-or-so of us were let in on a juicy secret, being treated to this kind of performance within the walls of Mississippi Studios on a deceptively nonchalant Thursday night.
Then, the band ended the set and left the stage. We unanimously prodded for an encore, and none was given. For JTNL, it was quick and dirty. Perhaps the venue had a strict time limit, but it was barely 12:30 am.
My mind returned to the disgruntled Tyler, and I was a little disappointed at the lack of a reprise. Did the band not find the piddly audience worthy of an encore? As high-energy and present as it seemed, I couldn’t help but get the impression that the whole show was just another day at the office for JTNL.
I want to love this band, and I think you should too, but this whole experience affected me the way Amy Winehouse’s persona blocked my ears from appreciating her raw talent.
On the car ride home, we had to discuss why JTNL might not be enjoying the success they deserve. Mike theorized that they should target an older crowd and that their music isn’t different enough. Katie thought they should focus more on their grittier sounding songs and stay away from their pop tendencies. I thought perhaps the problem was that their true audience-builder, the live experience, is impossible to translate in recorded format. And how does a band get more paying audience members at their shows when their best asset IS their show?
Nevertheless, we all agreed that, no matter how little money he’s making, Jonathan Tyler can’t NOT be a rock star. It’s in his DNA. If he’s not satisfied with selling 10,000 records in Texas (before he was signed to F-Stop) and accomplishments such as sharing the stage with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Crowes, and Deep Purple, he just needs more people to notice and perhaps buy some tickets on faith.