John Oates emerges as a solo artist
Ryan Summerlin December 26, 2008
ASPEN John Oates believes he might have played the best guitar solo of his life recently. It was unbelievable, one of those moments, said the Woody Creek resident. I dont even know what I played.This particular solo came during a taping of Live From Daryls House, the performance webcast hosted by Oates longtime partner in blue-eyed soul, Daryl Hall. Hall & Oates were playing a version of the first song they had ever done together: the Mad Lads I Want Someone, an example of the classic 60s soul that had bonded the two singers when they were students at Philadelphias Temple University. The webcast was the first time Hall & Oates were performing the song, and a shortage of preparation caused Oates and T-Bone Wolk, a longtime member of the band, to play overlapping parts. It turned into a beautiful mistake, the twin leads meshing rather than clashing.Oates has been having a lot of these moments lately artistic breakthroughs and career highlights, coming more than a quarter-century after he was on the top of the pop world, and an indelible presence on MTV. Even as Hall & Oates carry on with a limited touring schedule and recording activity, Oates, at 60, is emerging as a solo artist. It has been relatively late in coming: Oates says during the duos heyday, which lasted from the mid-70s into the late 80s, he was too busy to give any thought to individual projects. Not until 2002 did he make his solo recording debut, with Phunk Shui, which he recorded in Aspen. The concerts he played around that release were some of the first he ever played without Hall at his side.Oates considers those baby steps in light of his current activity. The record sales and concert attendance dont rival those of the early 80s, when the video for Maneater was an iconic piece of the emerging (and now faded) art of the music video, and Private Eyes and I Cant Go for That (No Can Do) went No. 1. But in 2008, Oates occasionally with, but mostly without Hall is showing up in more places than he did even at the height of his fame.This past summer, Aspen music fans of all kinds couldnt have escaped Oates if they tried. He put in guest appearances at Belly Up with jam-band Blues Traveler and Los Angeles hard-rock supergroup Camp Freddy; at a New Orleans benefit, he traded licks with bluesman Tab Benoit and funk gods the Meters. The summer was bookended with Oates in bluegrass mode: a Telluride Bluegrass Festival guest spot with Sam Bush, with Oates leading a raucous string version of Maneater; and sitting in with dobroist Jerry Douglas at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival.Oates sang the National Anthem at the World Series in his Philadelphia hometown, no less and, with Hall, appeared earlier this month on The Daily Show, singing a parody send-off to TV commentator Alan Colmes. Hall & Oates are scheduled to appear in cartoon form in the spring: In Cleveland, a spin-off of Family Guy, they play the angel/devil duo sitting in the shoulders of the title character. At the moment, it is planned as a guest spot, but there is talk of making the singers regulars on the show. That may not even be the only version of Oates in cartoonland: In development is J-stache, an animation starring Oates once-notorious mustache as a crime-fighting bit of facial hair. Also on the visual side, Hall & Oates released a DVD, Live at the Troubadour, of a May 2008 Los Angeles concert.Oates continues his blossoming career with an appearance Saturday night at the Wheeler Opera House. The concert features the band he put together several years ago: bassist Michael Jude and drummer John Michel, both members of the local group Take the Wheel, and Los Angeles keyboardist Jed Leiber. (Tickets for the concert are being offered to local residents for a special price of $25.) The date is followed by the Stories Behind the Songs series: three concerts, from mid-February through early March, featuring Oates; a rotation of noted singer-songwriters, including Patty Griffin and Tift Merritt; songwriting experts; and winners of a songwriting competition being held in local high schools.This is the best thing thats ever happened to me. Seriously, said Oates of the burgeoning side career that has him for the first time playing more solo dates than the 17 he has performed with Hall & Oates. I have a lot of freedom to do whatever I want. Daryl and I have both embraced that. We get together and play as Hall & Oates when we want to; he has his life, his music. And Im meeting all kinds of different people who I get play with and learn from.This last is largely a reference to the biggest piece yet in Oates musical life without Hall: 1000 Miles of Life. The album, released in September, found Oates jumping off something of an artistic cliff. The roster of guest artists includes Dobroist Douglas, banjoist Bla Fleck and mandolinist Sam Bush Nashvilles string-music royalty as well as Blues Traveler harmonica player John Popper, soul-guitar great Steve Cropper and gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama. On Ghost Town, a requiem for post-Katrina New Orleans, Oates songwriting is adventurous and complex, bursting well out of Hall & Oates soul-pop format.I feel Ive earned this after 30 years of playing, said Oates. I think every creative person would like to get to that spot, and Ive gotten there. And the freedom has given me a new lease on musical life. Theres no boundaries at all. And Im making better music now than I ever did.When Oates says he has earned his current position, at least some of what he is referring to is having performed under the shadow of Daryl Hall, and inside the pop giant that has been Hall & Oates.Hall was out front in the duo. On the surface, Hall was tall and blond attributes Oates cannot begin to claim and the one doing most of the lead singing. (In a Simpsons episode where Lisa is outshined by a classmate, she dreams that she has joined a super-group of second-fiddles: Welcome Garfunkel, Messina, Oates and Lisa, singing their number-two hit, Born to Runner-Up.) Factored into the Hall & Oates equation were the personalities.Daryl and I, our personalities are so different from each other, said Oates. Hes a lot more aggressive, a lot more outgoing. Hes a lot more tied to his public persona: He likes that part of his life, upfront in the public eye, the adulation he gets onstage. Whereas I dont feel I need that. I enjoy performing and being in the public eye, but I dont crave it.While the bands early hits became identified with Halls voice, Oates tended to the less notable aspects of a pop career (while also writing songs, singing harmony and occasional lead vocals, and playing guitar). Many of the things I contribute to the duo are less sexy, more nuts and bolts: the production, working with the band, the lighting and sound checks. The stuff nobody cares about, he said. You can have a Ferrari, but you have to have someone put the lug nuts on tight or youre not going anywhere.Or a more Zen way to put it: You cant have the sunset without the horizon. Hes the sunset; Im the horizon. And if it werent that way, we wouldnt have stayed together.Even more inhibiting was the sheer size that Hall & Oates grew to. Oates says the musical template was reasonably wide big enough for the folkier side of soul (Sara Smile) and the poppier, 80s-influenced side (Private Eyes). But whenever its two people with a big organization, its not very fluid. Its kind of staid. Theres a big infrastructure involved crew, business management. Its like a machine, he said, noting that his move to the Aspen area, in 1989, was a big step in unhooking himself from the machinery. Its not bad: Its like visiting a museum. I like visiting one, but I wouldnt want to live in one.Making 1000 Miles of Life was akin to stepping outside the museum doors and into the great, wild unknown. The batch of songs started arising after the deaths of several musical associates, including Arif Martin, Hall & Oates first producer, and Jerry Lynn Williams, a songwriting partner of Oates. Adding to the mood, Oates father suffered a mild heart attack. The songs, many with a tinge of inward sadness that would have been out of place in Hall & Oates repertoire of romantic material, came out in an uncommon rush for Oates. He tested some of the songs in front of a live audience something not done in the Hall & Oates. After a favorable reaction at two gigs at Steves Guitars in Carbondale, he quickly booked studio time in Nashville. The album was made in similarly real-time fashion: few overdubs, no doubling of instrumental parts. It has all revealed to Oates a new way to make music, a new way to approach a career.Literally playing with Bla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, [bassist] Mark Fain; all in the same room, playing together that was amazing, he said. That was pretty heavy-duty stuff. I dont rate myself with those guys as a musician, no way. But I wrote the song and sang it. At the same time, Oates is still pushing himself as a guitarist: Thats an important component of all this, contributing on guitar.Oates is taking something away from all his experiences. Playing with Camp Freddy led by Janes Addiction/Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro gave him a chance to rock out like he rarely has. Playing with the Meters was a major notch in his belt. Oates is eyeing upcoming Belly Up dates by ZZ Top and Sam Bush: Neither has contacted him yet about a guest spot, but if they do, he will take it as an invitation to learn.Its fun to jump into other peoples musical worlds, said Oates. Ive been doing this so long, and the backstage stuff the sound, the preparation, the way they relate to their crews, the amps and pedals thats all interesting to me. With Sam [Bush) and Jerry [Douglas], the way they show up with only their instrument to jam with another band and make it work, using someone elses equipment that impresses me. Because Daryl and I always traveled with all our own equipment. Ive become more flexible in what I need to have to play a show. Im more minimal.There are a few more new experiences ahead, including touring South America with Hall & Oates, for the first time, in March. Apart from that, Oates is going to let the music take him where it will. His next solo album, he figures, will be made in a similar fashion as 1000 Miles of Life: exploring a fresh corner of the music world, with musicians who are new to him.The songs dictate everything, he said. This one was introspective, family-oriented, a little somber. Id like to make more fun music. More groovacious, lighten up a little, explore the grooves again. And maybe find a group of people Zigaboo [Modeliste] and George Porter, from the Meters. Put them in a room and see what happens.And thats realistic. I can do that.
John Oates performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 27, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. Tickets are Tickets: $75 and $45, plus a $25 locals-only price with ID, available at the Wheeler, or www.aspenshowtickets.com. firstname.lastname@example.org