Photos © 2016 by: Roman Sobus
Biography: As if creeping from the Southern swamps and mist-soaked cotton fields, SIMO’s “Stranger Blues” is the perfect table setter for the Nashville power trio’s vibrant new LP, Let Love Show the Way. The song is a blueprint for reinvigorating the fusion of jazz improvisation, downhome blues and classic R&B, as well as these genres’ psychedelic Brit Invasion and countrified Southern-rock manifestations. The rest of the record follows suit, a souped-up vehicle transporting the band on a deeply satisfying, off-the-cuff musical journey.
Cut entirely live in full, unbroken takes—vocals and solos included—the sound is primal, sweltering and immediate. “We live and die by the take,” says singer-guitarist JD Simo. “We don’t edit, and if there are overdubs, they’re minimal. I want it to be unaffected and pure. For me, the music that always resonates most is when a performance is captured. That’s what I love, and that’s what we go for.”
The first album ever recorded at Macon, Ga.’s Big House—the communal home of the Allman Brothers Band during their late ‘60s/early ‘70s heyday—Let Love Show the Way finds SIMO not just reveling in the hallowed space’s unique mojo and history, but taking it to a fresh and inspired place. As a musical unit, Simo, his longtime drummer Adam Abrashoff and bassist Elad Shapiro have an undeniable chemistry, taken to even greater heights with JD playing Duane Allman’s 1957 gold-top Les Paul for every track on the record. This is the same six-string heard on the first two Allman Brothers LPs, the same storied guitar that delivered the unforgettable riff on Derek & the Dominoes’ “Layla.” JD is now part of an elite group of artists—including Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Wilco’s Nels Cline—who share the rare honor of having wielded this talismanic instrument.
“There’s definitely a magical element to the recording,” Simo says of Let Love Show the Way. “The vibe of the Big House, using Duane’s guitar, plus all the touring we’d done leading up to it, all the refinement of the material on the road—it was a perfect storm.”
Let Love Show the Way was not planned—results this potent are difficult to script. In fact, when SIMO headed down to Macon, the band had an entirely different set of songs already approved for release by its label, Mascot—this last-minute trip to the Big House was merely intended to yield a pair of bonus tracks for a deluxe edition. But with engineer Nick Worley at the boards of a stripped-down mobile recording unit, the band caught fire, burning through more than a dozen tracks in less than 48 hours. Once they heard the raw and electrifying intensity of the mixes, they didn’t think twice about abandoning the original plan and rolling with what suddenly felt so right.
“As the producer of the project, I couldn’t live myself if we didn’t use these songs,” Simo says. “I just felt it was better than anything the band had ever captured—so we decided to scrap the original record and build this new one around everything we recorded at the Big House.”
This choice to record at this historic location is a nod to JD’s lifelong reverence and respect for the musical pioneers who have come before him. When he was just three years old, seeing The Blues Brothers and Elvis Presley’s ’68 comeback special changed his life. “I was transfixed,” he says. “With The Blues Brothers, you’ve got John Lee Hooker with Muddy Waters’ band, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Chaka Khan right after she made one of my favorite records of all time with Rufus, Rags to Riches. Not to mention some of the greatest rhythm & blues musicians to ever walk the planet—Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy from Chess, that incredible original horn section from Saturday Night Live, Willie Hall from Stax, who played with Isaac Hayes. I mean, it’s a comedy and it’s funny, but as far as exposure to some really heavy music—I wanted to be Steve Cropper, I wanted to be John Lee Hooker. And it was the same with the Elvis special—he’s in the black leather suit, still good looking and charming and singing his ass off. Seeing The Blues Brothers and that Elvis comeback special made me want to play music.”
By the time he was five, JD was begging his parents for a guitar. They obliged, and by age 10—much like his peers Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa—he was regularly playing bars backed by older musicians. By 15, he’d dropped out of school, put his own band together and was touring full time. “For six years,” he says, “I just lived in a van and played all over the country and never really had a home.”
When he was 21, JD moved to Nashville, where—after making a living as a session guitarist and moonlighting in bar bands for half a decade—he made an important decision. Though he’d learned much from his experiences as a sideman, the time had come for him to pursue his own muse. He met likeminded musician Abrashoff and original SIMO bassist Frank Swart, and they set off on a journey together, hitting the road hard and honing their craft. During this time, the group also recorded its self-titled 2012 debut LP, which Rolling Stone later hailed as “soulful psychedelic blues rock with an improvisational bent.” Eventually, Swart left the band, making way for Shapiro to join on bass. “When we played with him it was so immediate,” JD says. “It was like, ‘Where the hell have you been?’”
While Simo is comfortable with his role as a bandleader, he’s never wanted to be a solo artist. “A band is something very unique and special,” he says. “You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. Adam is one of my best friends. He and I have been through the whole scope of the journey so far together. And now, with Elad—who has taken the band to a new level—we truly are a team. We’re brothers.”
It’s a sentiment that’s reflected in the band’s egalitarian/improvisational approach to songwriting, even in the way SIMO sets up for shows—in a straight line across the stage, with no member given more weight than any other. “I can’t emphasize enough how much I love these guys and what they bring to our sound,” JD says.” Adam is an absolutely immaculate improviser. He’s completely free and technically the best musician in the band. I’ve done hundreds of shows with him, and I still don’t know what he’s gonna do or where he’s gonna take things—it’s inspiring. And Elad, he completes my musical thoughts. He is full of passion and enthusiasm and authenticity. He has absolutely no filter, both socially—which is hilarious—and musically, which is always incredible. In many ways, he’s the heart and soul of the band.”
Together, they’re an adventurous rock & roll trinity, a thriving creative partnership completed by JD’s combustible guitar playing and soulful vocals, and Let Love Show the Way is a game-changing album from a band in the midst of an evolutionary breakthrough. “I’m a stranger here,” JD belts on the record’s opening salvo, all mysterious swagger and smoky, downhome grit. But for a band with such with such memorable songs, uncommon rapport and awe-inspiring musicality, SIMO can take solace in knowing the line won’t hold true much longer.