Kick Stock & Ivory kicks things off in Carbondale | AspenTimes.com

Kick Stock & Ivory kicks things off in Carbondale

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Annie KatzKick Stock & Ivory - with local drummer Jon Michel, Hawaiian singer-songwriter Johnny Helm, and Los Angeles keyboardist Jed Leiber - make their debut Wednesday at Steve's Guitars in Carbondale.

CARBONDALE – It was Johnny Helms’ regular gig at Tiki’s Grill & Bar in Honolulu, but it wasn’t exactly a routine night for the singer-songwriter. Someone was actually listening to Helms, and this gentleman was not just giving the once-over, but paying close attention throughout the set.Helms saw two possible explanations: a romantic attraction, or an interest in the music. The first seemed more plausible: Helms is a dark, nice-looking 36-year-old. And though he possesses a seemingly radio-friendly voice, with hints of Dave Matthews, it was virtually unprecedented for anyone to listen so intently to his songs.”Most people are there for dinner, or the atmosphere – we’re right on the beach – not to hear me play,” Helms acknowledged.Sure enough, the listener approached Helms with a proposition. But it turned out not to be a physical one. The man was Jon Michel, a musician who was attracted to nothing more than Helms’ voice and songs. The two talked music that night and the next day, and Michel, a Basalt resident, raised the idea of collaborating on a recording project. When Helms went six months without hearing from Michel, he was prepared to write off the relationship as a forgettable one-night stand. But one day he got a call from Michel, who was ready to reconnect. He proposed getting together in Los Angeles with Jed Leiber, a keyboardist and producer who had played with Michel in the Aspen band Little Blue, and in the band of Woody Creeker John Oates. In October of 2008, the three convened for writing sessions.”I went to L.A. not knowing what to expect. Unexpectedly, it went well,” Helms, a Connecticut native who had moved to Hawaii in 1993, said. “I had never written with anyone before. I had never wanted to let anyone in on that before. I just didn’t want people telling me what to do. It wasn’t an ego thing. I had just never found anyone I wanted to let in there. But I thought, What do I have to lose?”The three took a handful of Helms’ songs and made some lyrical and musical changes, which Helms believes strengthened them. Slowly over the past year, they have been recording demo versions of the songs. Three were recorded this past May in Aspen, at Great Divide Studios. The ultimate goal is to record stripped-down demos of 12 tunes and find a label or investor to back the creation of a full album. “But we’re going to do this project whether we get an investor or not,” Helms said.The group, under the name Kick Stock & Ivory, makes its debut Wednesday at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. (Michel and Leiber will also perform on Saturday, Dec. 26, at Belly Up Aspen, as part of John Oates’ Stasch Band.)Through Helms’ iPod, I listened to a pair of the demos, which revealed a polished, radio-ready acoustic rock sound. Which is almost exactly the opposite of the musical path Helms started out on.Helms picked up guitar at 14 and, directed by his sisters and even his mother, began playing the music of the Grateful Dead. “I was a Deadhead by default. My sisters were into it. My mother bought me a Dead anthology,” he said. “But the funny thing is, I don’t see any influence of the Dead in my music at all.”In his years at the University of Rhode Island, the Dead were the only influence. Helms was part of a Grateful Dead cover band, Cat on a Tin Roof. The band was horrible, but popular. Helms says he wishes he had the following now that he had back then.Two things pulled Helms away from his early roots. The first was the move to Hawaii, which was accompanied with a desire to immerse himself in the music indigenous to the islands. “I don’t play slack-key guitar” – a style with a distinctive tuning that originated in Hawaii – “but there’s a lot more of that in my music than the Dead or the Allman Brothers,” said Helms, who has released three self-produced albums.The second big influence was John Cruz, an immensely popular musician in his native Hawaii. “I heard him play and thought – not, I wish I was this guy, but wish I had the skills he had,” said Helms, who has become a friend of Cruz’s and his occasional tour manager. “But to have what he has, that’s got to be built-in. You can’t practice it. I tried to imitate him a lot, to learn what he was doing. Just by himself, he can keep an audience captivated for hours. That’s a rare thing.”Helms has proved that he can hold the attention of at least one audience member for an entire evening of music. Having captivated the ears of John Michel, Helms doesn’t have to entertain by himself. With Kick, Stock & Ivory – a name that references the drums, the guitar and the piano – he’s got some help.stewart@aspentimes.com