Release date: August 21, 2020
By Marty Gunther
Keyboard player Johnny Iguana is a rare talent in the world of modern blues, fully capable of carrying forward the tradition of Sunnyland Slim and Otis Spann one moment before switching gears in a contemporary manner, incorporating jazz and more, as he takes the music in a clever new direction while never losing touch with the foundation on which everything is based.
A 26-year veteran of the Chicago music scene, Johnny debuts as a headliner under his own name for the first time here, but make no mistake about it: he’s been a polished diamond hiding in plain sight for far too long. If you have any doubt, check out the all-star talent he enlisted for this project: John Primer, Bob Margolin, Billy Flynn, Billy Boy Arnold and Lil’ Ed Williams just to name a few. Add Matthew Skoller, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith and world-class bassist Bill “The Buddha” Dickens (Grover Washington Jr., Pat Metheny) to the mix and the results are nothing short of spectacular as the title suggests.
A friendly, upbeat and humorous character, Iguana is a Philadelphia native who came into the world as Brian Berkowitz. He started tinkling the ivories at eight years old and became obsessed with the blues after discovering Spann and Junior Wells at age 15. Still underage, he began his career primarily covering Junior’s tunes in local nightclubs armed with a fake ID – little realizing that he’d be joining his band in a few short years.
Johnny met Junior for the first time after moving to New York, then passed auditions at the House of Blues in Boston and a club in Rhode Island before being hired as a member of his stellar road band. A Chicago resident since 1994, Iguana spend three years in Junior’s employ, contributing keyboards to two of the harp master’s Grammy-nominated CDs. But that’s not his only claim to fame. He’s also been in the studio with Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr., both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, James Cotton, Johnny Winter and others.
And he’s also been a cog in the avant garde “garage cabaret” band, The Claudettes, since 2010 – a unit begun as a duo with percussionist Michael Caskey that’s evolved into a four-piece band with three CDs to its credit. Caskey provides the backbeat for several tunes here on Chicago Spectacular, a set that was recorded at the Windy City’s Shirk Studios under supervision of producer Larry Skoller. And recording artist Phillip-Michael Scales, a nephew of B.B. King, makes a guest appearance, too.
The opener, a cover of the Roosevelt Sykes barrelhouse-style standard, “44 Blues,” is right in your old-school comfort zone. It features Johnny’s double-fisted work on the keys with Primer’s strong vocals and tasty licks from Margolin on guitar. Iguana’s brief, tasty solo mid-tune shows he means business, but only hints at what he’s about. The original instrumental, “Hammer and Tickle,” picks up with much the same feel before Johnny’s modern approach rises to the surface through his powerful chordal attack in a jazz trio format – a go-to structure on multiple songs that follow.
Johnny revisits the blues root next for a pair of covers. Willie Dixon’s “Down in the Bottom” features Primer on six-string before Sonny Boy Williamson I’s “You’re an Old Lady,” swings from the jump aided by Arnold, who doubles on harp and vocals backed by Flynn and Smith. But Iguana blasts back into the 21st century, melding blues and jazz for the blazing fast, stop-time “Land of Precisely Three Dances,” an original that provides him plenty of space to work out.
A pleasant reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and John Coltrane” follows with Scales at the mic. The original instrumental, “Big Easy Women,” opens sounding like it’s going to be a straight-ahead blues before exploding into something more thanks to Iguana’s rolling, rapid-fire attack on the 88s. Traditionalists, fear not however. Familiar Windy City blues is just over the horizon with a slow, searing take on Otis Spann’s “Burning Fire.” Featuring Lil’ Ed on vocals and slide, it provides a welcome change of pace before he and Johnny slide into the Elmore James’ classic, “Shake Your Moneymaker.”
Like the title of the tune, “Motorhome” barrels down the highway, careening between lanes as Iguana fires on all cylinders, blasting minor-key triplets then shifting gears and powering chords, before picking up the pace once more. The intensity he built in that one runs through the end of the disc with Matthew Skoller propelling Sonny Boy’s “Stop Breaking Down” before Arnold and Flynn join in for the original “Hot Dog Woman” to close.
Available through most major retailers, Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular! is a thoroughly interesting, pleasing mix of mediums that cooks throughout. A treat awaits those who purchase the CD, rather than the download: the CD booklet folds out into a mini-poster featuring artist Daniel Vincent Bigelow’s renderings of seven revered Chicago Blues piano masters, plus succinct bios and liner notes penned by author/historian Bill Dahl. The cover art is a photo of Johnny’s bloody fingers on the keys of a century old piano. “Johnny broke the hammer assemblies four times during these sessions. Glue was employed. He also bloodied his hand on those tough old keys.” Ouch.
Johnny might have been a hidden treasure in the Windy City to outsiders in the past. But with this one, he’s definitely hidden no more! Strongly recommended.