When people casually throw around words like "virtuoso," "prodigy" and even "deity" when referring to your guitar-playing prowess, I would imagine it would be tough to keep your two feet firmly planted on the ground. Not the case for 30-year-old Chicago native JD Simo.
"If someone wants to throw positive energy your way as support, I'm not going to rob anybody of that," the soft-spoken, wavy-haired frontman (and apparently idolized guitarist) tells me. "It's all about how you accept stuff like that. I know better than anybody what my faults are. The people that truly impress me have no airs whatsoever; they just are."
Simo (pronounced "sigh-moe") may make it seem like it's no big deal. After all, who doesn't appreciate a nice, thoughtful compliment every once in awhile. But a little World Wide Web searching will pull up some very impressive results: Simo is a full-blown guitar star in a galaxy peppered with asteroids.
Of course, Simo would be the last guy on the planet to admit it. Modest and thoughtful, the singer/six-stringer of Simo -- his last name-aping psychedelic-flavored blues/rock band -- couldn't be less of a diva if he tried.
But there are (a lot) of reasons for all the hullabaloo: Simo started playing guitar when he was 5 years old, recorded his first live album by the time he was 15 and in 2006, moved to Nashville to become one of the scene's most in-demand session guitarists (which, if you know anything about the musical mecca of Nashville, is pretty damned impressive).
We're not done: He's graced the pages -- or cover -- of nearly every notable guitar publication (as well as Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone), finds the time to film a popular video-blog series where he demos and discusses vintage guitar equipment, and his band just released its sophomore full-length album, "Let Love Show the Way,” recorded entirely in live one-takes at Big House, the Allman Brothers Band’s own studio compound. No fixes. No overdubs. Vocals weren’t even recorded separately. What you see is literally what you get. Oh, and guess what? Every track featured Simo playing the late, great Duane Allman's legendary '57 Gibson Les Paul gold-top guitar (the same one used on songs like “Layla” and the band’s early records).
Needless to say, in the ax-shredding world, Simo operates on a purist’s level: He plays old (re: very expensive) Gibson guitars through just-as-old amplifiers (usually Marshall stacks) that are almost always turned to 11. Recently, Simo shared a photo on his Facebook page of a prototype signature model based on "Red," his cherished 1962 Gibson ES-335. In non-musician speak, that means "This dude is the real f---ing deal." Know how long it took Clapton to get a signature Gibson guitar? Oh, only about 45 years. You do the math.
Yet, when I speak with Simo on the phone, he's bewildered by something entirely different. He's in Taos, New Mexico, and he's endearingly stunned by the venue he's about to play -- the KTAOS Solar Center.
"This is one of the coolest locations I've ever been in!" Simo gushes. "I'm surrounded by mountains, getting ready to play a venue that's basically like a big amphitheater covered like a big teepee and powered by solar panels. I've seen a lot of things, but never seen a teepee that holds a couple thousand people powered by solar panels.
"I'm in hippy heaven," Simo adds. "Let's do it. Let's commune."
If Simo's latest shows are any indication, a little communing is exactly what's in store for fans (San Diego, heads up, the band plays Soda Bar on Sunday, March 6). Sure, the guys can tear through standard 12-bar blues like no other and add a hefty Led Zeppelin-esque stomp to their more modern-rock numbers, but it's the in-between zones they settle in that set them apart. Tipping his hat to some of his own musical heroes (Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane), Simo and bassist Elad Shapiro and drummer Adam Abrashoff go where the night takes 'em. In other words, there's a lot of improvisation when they hit the stage.
"It’s like half the show," Simo says. "We don’t write set lists. We have a huddle, and we say what we want to open with, and maybe go three songs deep from there. It’s completely reliant on the energy in the room. And the three of us are so keyed into listening to one another, it’s easy for us to anticipate where one of us is gonna go. Within the songs themselves, it’s limitless where we can take them. One night, we might play [the new album's leadoff single] 'Long May You Sail' just like the record; the next night, we might go into a 20-minute space jam and eventually wind up back on the main riff. You just surrender to where the music is gonna go."
It’s no surprise that listeners and critics alike have been surrendering to that music as well. Released to nearly universal acclaim, "Let Love Show the Way" features the jazz-like proficiency of each of the band's three players, Simo's robust vocals, and songs that are ultimately beholden to the blues medium, but never restricted by it. Psychedelic Southern rock, R&B, soul and ‘60s-esque Brit rock are all present, and it’s all anchored by propulsive grooves and their frontman’s epic, undefinable guitar solos. Shades of Cream, if you ask me.
"We worked hard on it," Simo says. "And you can never know if people will like what you do. I try not to have any expectations, to be honest; we’d been slugging it out for several years. But with proper management and agents, and a real label behind us along with radio support, it’s all been very new to me and to us. In that regard, with just the circumstances and opportunities that have been presented to us lately, along with peoples’ receptions, it's been pretty amazing to take in. Because, in a lot of ways, we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of hard work ahead, and that never ends, really. We’re just grateful. We’re playing as good shows as we can, and we really try to push ourselves to play differently every night. It’s harder, but it’s been great so far."
Like I said: modesty. You can't learn that. For Simo, it seems like being a good person trumps being a good guitar player -- although in his world, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. One can only imagine the further heights this guy is going to rise to down the line (fun fact: the trio's already plotted recording sessions for another album next January), especially when he’s as hopelessly optimistic as all get out, to boot.
“We’ve been a band for five years, and this is what we’ve waited for," Simo says. "We’re not playing to gigantic audiences yet … but if there’s 20 people that paid to come see you, you owe it to them just like you’d owe 20,000. You have to value every person, no matter the size of the crowd. And if you stay grounded, work hard and you're putting up something that has some value -- everything kinda works out. Attitude determines your altitude."
And, as if on cue, JD Simo -- unassuming guitar god -- summed up our entire interview better than I ever could.
Simo headline Soda Bar on March 6, with the Glorious Sons and Hot Damn Sextet opening. Tickets are $8 in advance and available online here.