In August of 2011, the stars must have been in a weird cosmic alignment because a series of unexpected and surprising events happened which some might call fate and others merely coincidence...
Local Denver musician Jonny Barber, aka the Velvet Elvis, rocked his gold suit at the final public performance of his Elvis tribute show on Saturday, August 14th of 2011. It was a spectacular show, one fit for a King. Jonny is absolutely one of the greatest Elvis Presley performers anywhere. He can perform the entire Elvis catalog of over 800 songs and do all the guitar playing as well. Jonny has been performing as the Velvet Elvis for several years, absorbing all that was Elvis, both spiritually and musically, literally walking a mile in his blue suede shoes. Velvet Elvis has played in Sun Studios, performed for Hugh Hefner in a pink cadillac, and brought tons of happiness to retirement homes and schools - not to mention rippin' up the music scene with his smokin' full-length live concerts. Scotty Moore, Elvis' legendary guitarist, told Jonny Barber that he has come closest to capturing the famous Sun Studios "sound" than anybody! I have been a big fan of Jonny Barber since first seeing Velvet Elvis perform in June of 2009. I am an incurable Elvis Presley fan and Jonny's energetic, soulful, rockin' dead-on Velvet Elvis blew me away! Other Elvis performers and imitators I'd seen only did short 30-minute shows, maybe an hour at most. Not only that, but none of them really physically looked like Elvis or had all the stage moves. Not Velvet Elvis, he accurately knows and can do all of Elvis' moves and, weirdest of all, he is exactly the same size as Elvis was physically. Same height, weight, waist, leg length, everything! But it is his sincere and energetic presentation of the songs in the Elvis universe that makes him head and shoulders better than all others. And he sweats like the King, most others don't. And he can correctly lift the left side of his lip like the King, most others can't. In addition to the Velvet Elvis, Jonny also fronts The Rhythm Razors, a popular rockabilly band here in Denver, Colorado. For more info on the Velvet Elvis click here and for info on Jonny Barber click here. I also recommend checking YouTube for Velvet Elvis and Jonny Barber videos.
A WEIRD, FATEFUL, COINCIDENTAL SIDENOTE: At my first Velvet Elvis show in June, 2009, he tossed a pair of funky, gold, Elvis sunglasses into the audience which fatefully flew into my grateful hands. During the show, Jonny Barber told a story about his mother getting to see Elvis Presley in 1956 back in Las Vegas. Well, it just sooo coincidentally happened that I have a perfect bootleg soundboard recording of that very same Elvis Presley show, his first Las Vegas appearance, which was at the Venus Room in the New Frontier Hotel, May 6, 1956! After the Velvet Elvis concert I introduced myself and told him I had a tape of the Elvis show his mom was at plus many other Elvis bootlegs he had never heard of. Jonny flipped his wig and later came over to my house to get a copy of the Elvis show (and to borrow boxes of Elvis bootlegs). I also gave him a vintage velvet Elvis painting from my collection. In addition to my shrine to the King, Jonny also noticed the Chris Duarte stuff on the walls and mentioned he was a huge fan and had even opened for the Chris Duarte Group years ago! I told him of my association with Chris and that the Chris Duarte Group was coming to Denver in August and would he like to maybe play an Elvis song with Chris? Jonny flipped his wig again and ended up performing "Little Sister" with Chris on August 21, 2009. Chris didn't know of Jonny beforehand and graciously let him play a song more as a favor to me (and rolling his eyes I'm sure after hearing he was an Elvis imitator!). At the show, Chris called Jonny up onstage and after just a few notes had a huge smile on his face as he realized that Jonny had the goods and the voice. The Chris Duarte Group leaned into "Little Sister" as Jonny commanded the stage. It was a rousin' roof-raising rendition and the crowd went nuts. Anyway, back to the story...
THE FIRST WEIRD, FATEFUL, COINCIDENTAL THING: Anyway, in the summer of 2011 Jonny turned 42 (the same age Elvis was when he left this earthly plane) and decided to retire the Velvet Elvis on August 16th, the same day as Elvis' death (how cool and honorable is that?!). Most other Elvis performers are over the age of 42 already!!! Jonny held a memorial service for Velvet Elvis on August 16th and played one last acoustic Elvis song and lit a funeral pyre. He truly, deeply, felt obligated to retire Velvet Elvis at 42 and was eager to focus on other side projects including recording bands at his home studio, The Church of Rock & Roll. The studio is a small house complete with stage, guest room, kitchen, instruments, recording gear, amps, microphones, mixing boards, and such. Jonny has recorded all of his own albums there along with other bands as well. One of his off-and-on side projects was a band called MAMA. Mama is a gelatinous collaboration between Jonny Barber and a chemically-fueled, astonishingly creative and poetic, somewhat warped, impossible-to-contain and left-out-in-the-rain drifting spirit/ladies man named Jeff Leonetti (aka Leonomadic). Jeff is a migratory creature and loves the road, driftin' along like a tumbling tumbleweed. He is intensely creative, constantly writing down thoughts and poems in a roadworn leather journal. Jeff would give you the shirt off his back (and minutes later someone might come by asking if you've seen their missing shirt!). Traveling with him and his shadow is a homemade slide guitar, a small amp, and some harmonicas in a Japanese ammo case from World War II. Jeff's vocals are unique, powerful, and soulful, sort of like a young Robert Plant or Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine, but really unique in both sound, phrasing, and delivery. He can lay down serious, delicate blues and sensitive ballads or pin your ears back with a primal, gut-wrenching blast of lava-covered words. That's right, lava-covered words! Leonomadic's lyrics on paper though are thoughtful, intense, and well written. Straight up they are like poetry, ala Bob Dylan. Reading the lyrics without the music and listening to the music are two completely different things and both are incredible. In addition to that, Jeff (self-taught) plays an unusual muscular style of grungey, grinding-the-gears slide guitar and is a bad-ass aggressive harp player to boot. His style has been honed on the street and has its own kind of assymetrical tuning. And the guitar he built himself is a scruffy beaut! Jeff writes finished lyrics and rough song sketches and, when the mood or weather suits him, will unexpectedly blow in to Denver from points unknown and present them to Jonny Barber, who fleshes them out musically and cobbles together other musicians on drums and guitar. Jonny also writes songs (and has them stored in a jar for these occasions). Together, when the stars decree, Jonny Barber and Jeff Leonetti (plus available musicians) are Mama. Jonny turned me on to Mama after they had recorded an album's worth of tracks in 2008 called "Bayoutopia". It is a fantastic record! The songs on it were written in 2006 when Jeff Leonetti went to New Orleans to volunteer after Hurricane Katrina. It is a great album and I highly recommend it (find more info on Mama here). In 2008, Leonomadic had called Jonny out of the blue from a payphone in Utah (during a snowstorm) and excitedly said he had a project finished called "Bayoutopia" and wanted to get together and record tracks. Jonny told him to bring it on and Leo immediately hitchhiked his way across Wyoming and down to Denver, knocking on the door in the middle of the night. Renowned music producer Rick Rubin and guitarist Steve Vai, through friends of Jonny's in the music biz here in Denver, heard Mama's "Bayoutopia" and flipped! Rubin was interested in recording them but Mama, as mentioned before, is a gelatinous non-band/band that is dependent upon whether Leonomadic is in town or not, what the current financial situation might be at the time, plus other nebulous factors which others might call luck. All of these factors and more have kept Mama from fame and fortune or even coming together seriously to tour or even record. It's amazing anything has been recorded at all. Nonetheless, when Mama does get together it is magically unique, riveting, intense music. After Jonny Barber had retired the lucrative and popular Velvet Elvis in a flaming pyre on August 16th, he didn't have anything immediate waiting in the wings to work on for the foreseeable future and his rockabilly band, The Rhythm Razors, had moved to Ohio and were on indefinite hiatus.
THE SECOND WEIRD, FATEFUL, COINCIDENTAL THING: On August 17th, the day after Jonny Barber retired Velvet Elvis, I received an e-mail from Chris Duarte stating he'd been dropped from his booking agency (of course Murphy's Law made sure that this happened just prior to the release of Chris's new "Blues In The Afterburner" album!). The e-mail also mentioned bassist Matt Stallard had abruptly left the band and drummer Jack Jones was leaving to go to music school. I could tell by the tone of the text that Chris was down and wondering to himself what he was going to do next. Would he put another band together on short notice, rehearse them, and take them out on the road to promote the new album or go in a different direction?
THE THIRD WEIRD, FATEFUL, COINCIDENTAL THING: The next day, on August 18th, Jeff Leonetti came out of nowhere and was knocking on Jonny Barber's door. They hadn't spoke in over 8 months and Leonetti had written another bunch of songs he wanted to record for a project called "Toxikinesis". On the cover of Jeff Leonetti's journal of poems and writings is a poisonous frog from the Amazon jungle which becomes toxic by eating poisonous insects, a process called Toxikinesis. Jeff Leonetti said that the songs were about his effect on women! I have always dug Mama's aggresive blues-based music and how it really seems to fit the desperate times we are living in, both lyrically and musically. On August 19th, Jonny invited me over to The Church of Rock & Roll to hang out and listen to some tracks they had recorded for their new project. I put my money in my shoe and went over to meet Jeff Leonetti. We clicked right off the bat and were talking about this, that, and the other. I found out that he, too, was a big Chris Duarte fan and had seen him in concert a couple times. The Mama rough tracks they had cut the night before were wonderful already. It was just Jonny laying down drum and bass tracks with Jeff playing slide guitar and adding vocals with some harp. Very bluesy and dark in its stark, unpolished simplicity. As I was listening to the riveting new Mama music I thought how Chris would fit right in with this raw approach to the blues. Then a lightbulb went on in my head...
THE FOURTH WEIRD, FATEFUL, COINCIDENTAL THING: Suddenly I thought to myself, "Wow, wouldn't it be cool if Chris Duarte might be interested in recording with Mama?" Chris Duarte had done some recording projects with others in which he records his parts in Atlanta, Georgia, and sends the tracks back to the artist somewhere else. Chris had never heard of Mama, but I thought it would be a natural fit. I mentioned the idea to Jonny and Leonomadic and asked them what they thought of having Chris Duarte on their Mama project. Both were totally jazzed about the possibility! The next day, August 20th, I rushed Chris Duarte a surprise package of Mama material - some new sound files and their first cd "Bayoutopia" - and asked him what he thought about contributing to the "Toxikinesis" album. Time was of the essence as Jeff Leonetti was only going to be in Denver through August 28th and then was going up north to Wyoming. We all expected that if any collaboration were to happen it would maybe be some guitar solos sent in via e-mail.
THE FIFTH WEIRD, FATEFUL, COINCIDENTAL THING: Chris Duarte instantly loved what he heard and completely blew everyone away when he said he was flying out to Denver asap!!!! Chris would be in town from August 26th through August 28th and wanted to record with Mama. Jonny told him he could stay in a guest room there at the Church of Rock & Roll. Bob Johnson and myself picked up Chris Duarte at the airport, then snagged Rick Shaw, and arrived at Jonny Barber's house. Chris, Jeff, and Jonny were gonna' just hang and jam awhile and get to know each other while Bob, Rick, and I were flies on the wall. Chris arrived with nothing more than a guitar and a toothbrush. Jonny and Jeff couldn't believe it was all happening, but they all were immediately comfortable with each other and there was a definite, instant chemistry. They jammed for 80 minutes and played spontaneous jams with improvised lyrics, as well as some blues standards. It was a bit rough around the edges with moments of brilliance. It was a real thrill to watch this all go down. After the jam, Jonny played Chris some of the vocal/slide tracks he had recorded the day before with Leonetti. Chris was real impressed and couldn't wait to get familiar with the material. I swung by the Church the next afternoon and watched them record tracks and try out new ideas. Jonny was laying down some simple drum and bass tracks and Chris Duarte did a variety of guitar parts. Jeff Leonetti recorded vocals, slide guitar, and harmonica. The atmosphere was real friendly and laidback. Chris was having a great time and had a lot in common with Jonny and Jeff. His playing was real relaxed and different than his live shows and you could tell he was trying to put his own stamp on the Mama songs. It was a wonderful fit and Chris melded perfectly with Jeff's vocal style. I kept telling myself that these guys could really be something powerful given a week of rehearsal time! It was all over too quick, but everybody had a blast. Jonny's bassist from Velvet Elvis, Ian Gilchrist, came in and sprinkled his special magic dust on three of the tracks, mixing them down to warm, wicked, final mixes. Lucky for you, these three tracks of Chris Duarte with Mama are available on a new fanclub cd called "This, That and The Other". The songs, "Red Desert", "Black River", and "Drinkin' Free", are part of a compilation cd of Chris Duarte music (see details below). I think there is enormous potential with Mama and, after hearing the three recorded tracks they did together, I think you will agree! The guys talked of someday doing a tour together. I seriously hope it happens, as well as more recording sessions together. I really enjoyed watching them come together and creating some great music in such a short period of time. And click here for a wild, free-ranging interview with Kelly Montana, Chris Duarte, and Jeff Leonetti about the Mama project.
update 7/20/12: well it's one year later and Mama ended up being an interesting side project for Chris Duarte. He really enjoyed the refreshing change of pace and Mama's different musical style and take on the blues. One impact it had on Chris was on his tuning. By the time Chris recorded with Mama he had retired his main guitar, a 1963 Fender Strat, a year before. It was just too fragile and too valuable to take out on the road and was to be reserved for studio work only. He had replaced it with an Xotic XS Series Strat (based upon the same measurements as the '63 Fender) and had been playing it for a year or so. I have been seeing the Chris Duarte Group since the early '90s and have usually seen Chris play the '63 Fender all these years. The Fender is synonymous with Duarte's music - the deep, rich tone complimenting his vocal style. Just like Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fender Strat guitar and the music are intertwined. When I first saw Chris play the Xotic guitar at a show I immediately noticed how it sounded thinner and more tinny than the sturdy Strat tone and sound I was used to. Well fast forward to May of 2012 and I recently saw three live CDG shows in which the Xotic guitar was much better sounding than before, more like a Fender. I asked Chris about it and he told me that during the recording sessions with Mama he had to tune the guitar down lower to match Jeff Leonetti's vocals. He remembered that earlier this year and decided to try tuning his guitar the same way for his live shows. I love the new tuning and hope he keeps it (and it compliments his vocals nicely, too). The only drawback he said is that he has to watch his hands more (for now) because he has to phrase certain chords and play differently. The Mama sessions yielded three finished tracks and many more unfinished ones (waiting for the return of Leonetti). The three finished tracks Chris did with Mama were all released on the "This, That, and The Other" fanclub cd (see below) and have been distributed all around the world through the fan club. Every response I have read or heard is extremely positive. Everyone loves the ferociousness of the tracks and digs Chris Duarte's playing. It's too bad they couldn't make it happen and form a touring band for some live shows - it would've been jaw-dropping. Jeff Leonetti left for Wyoming on the 28th of August in 2011 and hasn't been heard from since. If you visit the Mama website (click here) and go to "Shows" you will see that it simply says "Jeff Leonetti's whereabouts are unknown". Jonny Barber has been busy writing a book about his experiences and stories as Velvet Elvis. His Elvis performances were so dead-on that several times people were moved to tell him of their own personal stories of having encountered Elvis or knowing him or even dating him! Jonny smartly wrote down or recorded all of these stories (dozens of them) and, along with his own insights into the King and how he affected his own life spiritually, has been writing a book that will come out soon. And to top it off, Jonny will be recording all 20 of Elvis' Sun Records recordings IN SUN STUDIOS this August to go with the book! How cool is that?! And Chris has been busy trying out new bassists and drummers and forging ahead with the "Blues in the Afterburner" album tour. He hopes to solidify a band shortly. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that anything of Mama is recorded, let alone with Chris Duarte on guitar, is a wonderful, fateful, coincidental miracle!
THE SIXTH WEIRD, FATEFUL, COINCIDENTAL THING (really a shameless plug):
and The Other
A rib-crackin' compilation from the CDG band archives! For all serious Chris Duarte fans, this cd has lots of stuff you've never heard. Stuff that will curl your toes and rattle your skull! Stuff like outtakes from the albums "Only One" and "Tailspin Headwhack", home demos, radio appearances, live cuts, and three unreleased studio tracks of Chris Duarte with the band Mama.
Songs include Siempre Mi Amor / Senor
Cold Cold Day / Cross My Heart / Floating Bridge
Tropic Joy / Well, You Needn't / Azul Ezell
Last Night / Violence / The Only Thing
Chris Duarte & Mama: Red Desert / Black River / Drinkin' Free
This is a factory-pressed made-in-the-U.S.A. silver disc and is a limited run of only 1,000 (all previous fan club releases are out of print). So hurry, before supplies last! For U.S. residents of the United States, this cd is recessionally-priced at a mere $13.00 if using Paypal or $12.00 by mail (shipping is included). Foreign orders outside of the United States are $17.00 if using PayPal or $16.00 by mail (in U.S. dollars only and shipping is included).