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JD Simo: Guitar hero

Guitarist ignores the 'great' labels to stay focused on his blues-rock blood

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It was something between seeing the charisma of Elvis and the swaggering cool of the Blues Brothers on TV that hooked JD Simo on music.

Growing up in Chicago, Simo found something he could not only relate to, but something he wanted to be — a musician and a performer. Only problem? Simo wasn't even 5 years old.

"All I can remember is that I was obsessed with it," Simo says of the first time he picked up a guitar, around age 5. "The bond I made with the instrument and performing are kinda two separate things. I made those bonds at an early age and they encompass the same things that they did back then. As far as how quickly I took to the instrument, I can't really say. It's been a long journey that's had ups and downs, but I was crazy in love with it."

Simo's passion comes through readily when he strikes up his blues-rock chords. He's getting those "next great guitar player" labels thrown his way — and he's only 29.

Given, Simo was touring at age 15 and worked as a session guitarist for years in his 20s, so he's easily been there and done that in the music business. Now, he's hitting the road with his trio, simply called Simo (pronounced sy-mo), in support of the band's sophomore album, Let Love Show the Way. The band will perform at the Double Door Inn on Feb. 5, just on the heels of the album's Jan. 29 release date.

Simo ignores any of those labels people try to place on him. He learned a long time ago not to Google his own name. There could be 400 good reviews, but he'll end up focusing on the bad ones.

Instead, his energy goes into his trio and the energetic blues-driven rock they create. It's a part-improvisational, part-classic, part-soulful amalgam that allows Simo plenty of space to stretch his guitar-driven spirit. The band might play a song for seven minutes one night and 35 the next, depending on when the mood strikes.

It's similar to the approach of saxophonist Kamasi Washington or Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead — sometimes you just have to see where a particular song takes you. It's not about riffing over the same chords or soloing just to solo. It's far deeper than that.

"If it's true improvisation and it's not pre-planned or pre-thought out, it's really kind of a meditation," Simo says. "It's you as a group trying to reach a collective consciousness where you're past the thinking stage. You're just being. If you truly reach that place, you'll have no idea how long it lasts. It's like meditation and you'll say, 'I feel like I was out for 10 or 15 minutes,' and it may have been eight. That's the closest thing I can compare it to. You don't really have control over it. That's something that's really intoxicating. It's kind of a suspended, timeless feeling to be in the middle of. To me, it's about the ensemble working together."

Let Love Show the Way was recorded almost by mistake. Simo booked two days at the Allman Brothers home in Macon, Georgia, to record a few bonus tracks on an album that was already finished.

When Simo got there, things flowed so well, the band decided to scrap the first album and go with the new songs instead.

Fueling part of the creativity was Simo playing one of Duane Allman's Les Paul guitars.

"To get to play it in their old house — the circumstances were very heavy," Simo says. "I never really perceived that I would do that. I would take little tiny vacations from reality to say 'wow' and then snap back into directing traffic [in recording the album]. It was amazing. Getting to play the instrument — it's always an honor. In this case, it was something very special given the surroundings."

Simo says the Allmans' tour manager Willie Perkins showed up during part of the sessions and added to the surreal feel of the moment.

While Simo says he tried to stay focused on the record, he did find 10-15 minutes to talk with Perkins about the band and Duane.

"When you're in the middle of it, everything is moving so fast and it's hard to find a moment when you can just stop and be in it," Simo says. "If anything, I tried to force myself to be in the moment and realize how cool it was."

Simo isn't exactly sure where his talent comes from.

There aren't any musicians in his family — they're all great athletes though, he says. His father was a scout for the Chicago Blackhawks.

"Me not wanting to get on skates was a big thing in my family," Simo says. "At the time, I was a little kid who just wanted to put on shows and perform for people. I was way too young to conceptualize playing music for a living."

These days, Simo has found a home in Nashville with his wife and two pound dogs — a border collie mix named Coltrane and a lab mix he calls Emmylou Harry.

"I moved to Nashville mostly because I had been everywhere I could be as far as the States are concerned by the time I was around 21," he says.

"I was tired of it. I lived a gypsy kind of existence for a very long time. I realized that if I didn't do something, I would have ended up on a perpetual treadmill that wouldn't amount to anything more than what I had been doing for five or six years up to that point. Then I dedicated myself to the session stuff for a good long period. As things happen, you cultivate it and one thing leads to another."

These days, his band is something different from what he did in the past — whether it was as a kid who had a lot to learn or as a sideman who was investing time in someone else's vision. He says the opportunities that have been coming along with Simo have come at the right time. "I'm glad I didn't get them when I was younger, because I wasn't ready for them," he says.

Though the record just came out, he's already thinking about the next one, which he hopes to record in 2017 after extensive touring this year.

In the meantime, he just hopes the audience enjoys what he does and can get on the same wavelength when one of those extended improv sessions rings out.

"Whenever you're leaving the scripted realm, every single person's energy in the room is affecting it in some way," he says. "If everybody is focused and in a good place, it can affect the music in a profound way. When music isn't working, I think it should be very easy to tell, just like when it is working."

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