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Arts

Scene&Heard: Johnny Conqueroo “Haint Blue”

It’s a cold night in early December, but the Green Lantern is packed. The trio of musicians assembles on stage, and the weight of expectation hangs heavy. For the uninitiated to the Johnny Conqueroo universe, this is the moment when blistering rock’n’roll might be expected. This is the band you’ve heard about for years. This is the band you’re supposed to accept as the Next. Big. Thing. So it’s just a tad confusing when the downbeat produces…slow and heavy 12-bar blues?

Okay, so you adjust your expectation – after all, they aren’t making some rote recital of a familiar form – they’re really digging into it, extracting every last ounce of grit.  It’s now a blues band you’re witnessing. And before the cymbals die out from the first tune, gritty guitar kicks in and the blistering rock’n’roll of their new single “Brick” begins, rejiggering those blues chops with meaty layers of deep bass and rock solid drums. Singer/guitarist Grant Curless stalks the stage like a man possessed, clinging to his guitar almost like a weapon to ward off the crowd, while Shawn Reynolds on bass and Wils Quinn on drums to lay in the pocket and anchor the action. Welcome to the real deal.

Johnny Conqueroo is not here to play to your expectations. Starting off with a heavy blues number in a rock show? Unheard of. Finding a home in the blues when much of the modern musical catalog seems to have abandoned it? Bold. Coming off as slightly reserved, intensely polite and complete pros during an interview? Isn’t this supposed to be a bunch of young punks?

It’s easy to overlook the fact that the members of Johnny Conqueroo are, in fact, well-worn veterans in the Lexington music scene and beyond because they started as a band relatively young (side note: so did Radiohead). It’s their complete professionalism that allowed Quinn to quickly suppress a strained grimace when asked a somewhat condescending question about whether the band’s relative youth provided them with a sliding scale of expectations.

“There’s a lot of bands that will kind of ride on that – ‘Look, we’re amazing and we’re kids.’ And that becomes their identity,” said Quinn, “and then all of a sudden they’re not kids, and it’s just, ‘Oh, they’re just a band.’ It definitely helped early on, because people were like, ‘Yeah, they’re in high school and they play the blues – isn’t that funny?’”

“It feels almost kind of gimmicky,” said Reynolds.

“It was a glaring fact,” said Quinn.

If the band (rightly) chafes under the mention of their youth during their band’s rise, it’s because it’s at this point where a hacky writer should discuss how the transition from “high schooler band” to “adult band” has had a marked difference on their music and given them a more mature sound as they have shed their teenage band persona. But that would be stupid.

Has their songwriting progressed? Absolutely, just like any band with years of experience. Is their sound more focused and tighter? Listening through from their 2015 EP to 2016’s “Washed Up” and on to their newly-released EP, “Haint Blue,” the answer is indeed “yes.” It’s the central tenet that there is a mandated maturation process to which the band has been exposed that breaks down – Johnny Conqueroo didn’t age into their musical craft – they’ve been at the top of their game since the beginning, and they’ve been doing this a long time.

“I started going to Nashville maybe fourth or fifth grade – started going down there a whole lot,” said Curless. “Started listening to the bands in the honky-tonks, which were cover bands, but would cover old country songs and old rockabilly songs.”

Curless’s interest in music formed there, shifting from old country like Hank Williams to rockabilly, and then…

“Slowly, that morphed into the blues,” said Curless.

Although the band has moved a bit away from its roots as a blues three-piece, it’s the genre that still informs their music to a high degree.

“I can’t really help it, to some extent,” said Curless. “You like what you like.”

“Listening to the blues – you kind of start to get an appreciation for the storytelling aspect,” said Quinn. “You can get an appreciation for that without going through anything other than just listening to those stories. They’re just fun stories, and if it’s good blues, it’s always told with conviction, too. It seems like it’s told by someone who really needs to tell it.” 

It also helps the group mine fodder for their material from stories around them.

“We have a whole multitude of weird friends and weird people and weird stories you hear in Lexington,” said Curless.

“You’ll start to pick up these inspirations from people you meet and friends and characters for weird ideas to jump off of,” said Quinn.

In addition to mining the local landscape for stories, the band has a reverence for the music that came before, sniffing out pieces and parts to add to their repertoire.

“Any time we hear a record or a 45 that just has an element to it that we really like, we try and incorporate that same element into a song or in the band in general,” said Curless. “The groove of funk music…”

“Like those little drum breaks from sixties garage band songs,” Quinn said. “Actively listening to that stuff and seeing what you could pull from it. The internet is basically the secret.”

On “Haint Blue,” their third release in four years, Johnny Conqueroo throws the throwback dance party they’ve been building to since their first EP in 2015. Jangly guitars, slapback vocal reverb and a trademark drum sound by knob-twirling local mastermind Duane Lundy all add to a potent mix of equal parts modern blues and Dick Dale. The title track takes these fundamentals sans vocals and turns them on their head in a raucous musical exorcism over a repeated riff that demonstrates the power in this power trio.

That power overtakes Curless on stage, turning him from a soft-spoken and circumspect individual in an interview into a howling banshee, ready to take no prisoners. His bandmates referred to Curless’s enormous stage charisma and excellent guitar face as a possession, relaying a story of one memorable gig where Curless was so overtaken with the energy of the show that he smashed his guitar at the climax of the song and ran off stage.

Curless shrugs off any idea that there’s some demon to exorcise. There’s no deep trauma underlying the complete transformation, no need to prove something to the world. It’s just a natural extension of Curless, guitar in hand, absorbing every electron of light in the spotlight night after night. 

“It just feels right up on stage.”

Johnny Conqueroo’s third release, “Haint Blue,” is out now on label The Fir Trade.

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Arts

Scene&Heard: Divine Carama

Music isn’t just music for hip hop artist Devine Carama, it is everything. It is the backdrop to his drive, to his work, and to his life. He raps about a mission that he believes with all his heart, and his life’s work reflects that daily.

Friday night, the first of December, a diverse group of musicians took the stage at The Burl to embody and play for Devine’s mission about community. His non-profit Believing in Forever was hosting a Coat to Keep the Cold Away fundraiser that night, sharing the donations with The Nest and the Reindeer Express. All the funds for the show went to the charities, and cover could be paid in a new coat or toy for donation. The trade off for the act of kindness was a line up of some of Lexington’s finest musicians, boasting a wide variety of genres of high quality music.

Robert Frahm started the night with his tight guitar slinging skills, followed by Sunny Cheeba. Joslyn and the Sweet Compression went next and set the stage for Devine Carama, the headliner of the show and the organizer from the Believing in Forever non-profit. Devine Carama was followed by The Summit and the Johnny Conqueroo. Devine was on the other side of having recently performed a 24-hour Hip Hop for Hope marathon in front of the Fayette County Courthouse.

For the past four years, Devine Carama’s winter season has centered around the Coat to Keep the Cold Away campaign. The first two years, his organization raised funds and collected coats for low income kids and families in the Central Kentucky area. Last year they expanded to Eastern Kentucky as well and bought and delivered 1500 coats to kids who needed them. This year, the requests reached nearly 2800. So Devine went to work. He did the 24 hour marathon and raised almost $4,000 for new coats, but it wasn’t enough. Thus, the beautiful night of music at The Burl that Friday evening.

Joslyn and the Sweet Compression are a great act to follow. They always leave the crowd happy and moving and loving life and everyone in it. From there, Devine took the stage solo. His DJ wasn’t able to be there that night, so he used pre-recorded beats as his backdrop. He did a short intro about who he was and why were were all there that night, and then, he let the words go. Oh man, all those words…

Divine Carama | Photo by Derek Feldman

For twenty minutes Devine Carama slayed lyrics upon lyrics. His rhymes were tight and flowing and talked about so much, about what is real. About life on the streets and about poverty and disenfranchisement and unarmed black men getting shot and community and Africa and about so much. His lyrics are dense and vast and you follow along with him, line by line, as he tells you what it’s all about. He calls to the crowd and they answer along, following the beat with him, moving in time to the rhyme.

“Poetry and lyrics are so important for me…” Devine commented, speaking of the early days of hip hop and of “Diverse complex parallel rhyme schemes, when it really mattered, and substance.” He wants his lyrics to speak about the truth of the struggles he sees in his community and America daily, “things that are going on in the world. Charlottesville, a lot of unarmed black men dying, Trump in office. You rarely hear them mentioned in hip hop. I come from the era of Public Enemy and NWA” when hip hop artists spoke out against the subjects that “will be in the history books.”

His lyrics are packed full of these themes. It’s astounding, how someone can remember all those words, to stand up there and preach and say all the lyrics with emphasis and pathos. To remember and to move, to instill the message in the hearts of the crowd below. The fog on the stage mixed with the cold air from outside and swirled around Devine as he shared his poetry and his passion with the room. The bass bounced against the walls and moved The Burl to a beat it wasn’t as familiar with, and it liked it. You could tell. The room danced that night, from one performer to the next, and the feeling was real good.

Taking a break after twenty minutes, Devine spoke to the crowd about his non-profit, Believing in Forever, which was founded in 2014. Their mission is to inspire education, community service, mentoring and expressive art. They hold nine in-school mentoring programs, called Impact 859. Sons of Single Mothers is another aspect, which recently received a grant from State Farm. They also hold Youth Open Mics, do Philanthropy projects such as A Coat to Keep the Cold Away, motivational youth speaking, and mentoring. They try to inspire strength in the next generation in ways that are “a little different than the norm.”

Mainly, Devine Carama wants all the forgotten, disenfranchised folks out in the community to know that there are people who do see them, who do care. Those are the people he raps about in his hip hop songs, those are the people he works tirelessly for to give them the comfort of a new, warm coat that fits well, and the comfort of taking the time to help with homework, and mentoring them through the difficult choices and consequences life brings. Even free haircuts earned for good grades. And a place to express themselves through spoken word and song as well. All of these things build community, and community is what Devine is all about.

Believing in Forever had a goal to reach, those 2800 coats that had already been requested from all over central and eastern Kentucky. The goal was not quite met after Friday night, so, driven as he is, Devine committed to another hip hop for hope marathon. This time, for 48 hours. For two days straight he would sit outside in the cold and rap his hip hop lyrics every hour, on the hour, for twenty minutes or so each time. Even in the cold, dark night, at 4 and 5 am, he was out there rapping. That was the point, he commented, “The commitment- even when there’s not a lot of people around. [It] symbolizes those families that are struggling that not everyone knows about. Every hour on the hour…Every hour.”

I sat with Devine outside the courthouse during hour eight of his 48 hour marathon. It was a sunny day at 3pm, but the wind was blowing cold, driving the dry, dead leaves around in circles, and after thirty minutes I was frozen cold and couldn’t feel my hands. He had forty more hours to go. He rapped outside to the traffic driving by. Folks honked in support, or walked by to greet him and shake his hands or donate to the cause. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergran Grimes stopped by to visit. And there were several interviews — including mine: 

Music is a strong force within a community. Whatever the genre, it can move people to act and to gather and to commune. When that music is joined with action, it can move mountains. Devine Carama channels his music from his soul, and imbibes it with his passion for community. When he puts that music to work for his beliefs, magic can happen. The magic of a kid getting a great new coat for Christmas, and the relief his parents or guardians feel with the gift of a stranger. The magic of a kid who passes a tough test because members of the community spent their free Saturday with him, working hard on helping him pass. When he does, he gets rewarded and praised and gets a new haircut. These are the differences that matter, this is the real magic of community. Devine Carama embodies that in everything he does.

“With the music I think its always about unearthing truths or emotions that are often suppressed in hip hop music. I’m an agent of change when it comes to that I am the voice that you don’t normally hear in hip hop music. The boy that doesn’t have a father, the young teenage girl who was molested. The underserved black kid that lives in a city that 90 percent don’t look like him. I want my music to be that, and I want my music to be uplifting to those who don’t have a voice.”

At the Burl | Photo by Derek Feldman

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