LAST December, Johnny Tsakanikas was doing his regular open mike gig at Jimmy's Tavern in Herndon. In the crowd that night, watching his blues-rock guitar wizardry, was Michael Lang, the promoter of Woodstock '99. Seven months later Tsakanikas, aka Johnny Tsak, aka Johnny Rushmore, was onstage at the ill-fated festival, playing for 80,000 people, the Thursday before the big weekend crush.
That's a twist of fate musicians dream of, but it didn't really surprise Tsakanikas, who's been playing music steadily for nearly 20 years. "In the late '70s, I was in high school in Montgomery County, and all I wanted to do was play," he says. "I'd skip class and play up on the hill behind the school." Tsakanikas says that between the ages of 12 and 19, he played guitar "about eight hours a day. I'm not kidding, eight to 10 hours a day." Seeing him play recently at another open mike at Jimmy's Tavern, I believe him.
At Jimmy's he plugged in his guitar, nodded to the drummer and the bassist (open mike host Ned Meloni) and ripped into a version of "Drivin' South," a boogie blues instrumental he learned off a Jimi Hendrix record. Tsakanikas's fluid fingers are astonishing, and while he definitely sounds like a throwback to another era, his passion erases any sense of his being a musical dinosaur. You sense Jimi might be smiling down from above.
"Hendrix was the guy," Tsakanikas says. "He changed my life." He points to a live Johnny Winter/Rick Derringer record as a big influence as well ("I got a lot of my chops from that record. Them dudes is just smoking!"), but really he sounds like himself. He did back then, too, when as a teenager he was already drawing big crowds to his performances in Tsak (pronounced "sack"), the band he formed with his older brother Kenny. They were the next big thing for awhile, but a string of disappointments and personal tragedies sent Johnny down a very different path.
"Around 1984 I got really religious," says Tsakanikas quietly. "I used to preach on Metrobuses, telling everyone they were going to hell unless they turned to Christ." He describes a marriage within his church that didn't work out, a sense of purposelessness, a period of ill-health and finally his realization that what he really wanted to do -- and all he really knew how to do -- was play guitar.
He headed to L.A. where an old friend had put together a speed-metal band called Power Trio From Hell and wanted Tsakanikas's guitar talents. Signed to Warner Bros., the band enabled Tsakanikas to make a living, but "here I was, a total Jesus freak in this Satan band. Finally I knew I had to quit. We had this song called `Reach Out and Kill,' and I just couldn't stomach it." He asked the record label if it would be interested in a different kind of record from him: "I asked them to let me do a blues-rock record. I told them I was one of the best, but they didn't let me, so I left."
Finding his way back to Washington, Tsakanikas hooked up with longtime pals Violet Fez, a local band that concentrates on out-of-town shows. He plays regularly with them and also with boogie piano great Daryl Davis ("I learn more from him every time we have a gig. He's just the best.") But his heart was in his own music, and he looked for musicians who could help him fulfill his vision. He recorded a batch of songs with one group of players, he's played live with another batch, but when he got the invitation to play Woodstock's "emerging artist" stage Tsakanikas took along the members of Violet Fez (drummer Ian Fury and bassist M.F. Masawbe).
"It was so great, playing in front of 80,000 kids, most between 17 and 24, and they loved the slow blues. That was their favorite." Tsakanikas made some pretty serious industry connections at the festival and thinks that something bigger might be in the works for him, but he won't reveal details. As he works those angles, he's not playing out much, but you can catch him in Daryl Davis's band at the D.C. Blues Festival, Saturday from 2 to 10 at Carter Barron Amphitheatre (Davis plays at 3:10; call 202/828-3028) and he'll front a trio Wednesday at Jimmy's Tavern in Herndon (703/435-5467), where he'll likely play on the 15th and the 29th as well.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Johnny Tsakanikas, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8112. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
ADAM WEST'S NEW CD
"I told you we're a [expletive] rock band!" screamed Adam West frontman Jake Starr into his microphone last week at the Metro Cafe. "We ain't no indie pop band! No ska band! We're here to rock!"
And rock they did, late into the night, with members of the quartet working themselves into a sweaty mess. Guitarist Derrick Baronowsky, bassist Steve (just Steve) and drummer Tom Barrick kept up admirably with Starr's frantic bouncing around the microphone, playing their mix of punk, metal and garage rock with passion and ease.
Most of the best tunes came from the band's new CD, "13 De Luxe," songs that find the band hitting its stride in both musicianship and songwriting. "We were all set to record with our old guitar player and he quit just before we went into the studio," Starr says. "So we got Derrick on board, and put off recording for four months, just rehearsing and rehearsing. We became a really tight unit and came up with lots of new things."
The addition of Baronowsky also completed the musical shift of Adam West from somewhat campy garage band into a roaring jet engine of a full-on rock band. "People say we're a punk band, we're a hard rock band, WAMA called us a metal band," Starr says. Well, sort of. Adam West won a Washington Area Music Award last year for best metal/hard rock band and Starr, a graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, won a Wammie for best metal/hard rock vocalist.
"So when people ask, I just say we play punk rock 'n' roll. When we started out in 1991, we were more like a '60s British invasion kind of band. We were very tongue in cheek, which you can tell by our cheesy name." (Pop culture vultures will remember that Adam West is the name of the actor who played Batman/Bruce Wayne in the '60s television series.) "But we moved on, sounding more like the Stooges and MC-5." Those two bands are obvious influences on Adam West, and that's why you'll find the band, along with several other local bands, at Phantasmagoria on Saturday night for an "Iggy and Stooges Tribute."
"Iggy Pop is probably my favorite performer of all time," says Starr, "and John Stabb [from Betty Blue, the night's organizer] knew that and got in touch with us. We'll perform `Real Cool Time' from the first Stooges album and `Search and Destroy' from their third. I can't wait."
"13 De Luxe" is Adam West's second full-length CD, released on the band's own label, Fandango Records. The first, "Mondo Royale," came out in 1997, and that release was preceded by several seven-inch Adam West singles. "We like putting out singles. It's a fun way to approach getting our music out there," Starr says. "And we've begun to release stuff by other bands, like the new single Fandango is releasing by BST Payback. They're my absolute favorite band around here."
Starr says he's been approached by larger record companies (and at Metro Cafe he announced a possible Adam West release on Seattle's Sub Pop label), but generally, he says, the band prefers to remain free of any major label attachment. "We get to do what we want now. We've talked to a few major labels, but they always give you some [expletive] contract telling you what you can and can't do. No man, I want to do what I want."
That includes setting up a European tour next spring in support of a couple of singles soon to be released in Spain and Sweden. Locally, other than the Phantasmagoria appearance, Adam West will perform at the Velvet Lounge Sept. 22 for the WAMA Crosstown Jam, at the Metro Cafe Oct. 8 with Candy Snatchers and BST Payback, and Oct. 10 at the Taste of D.C. festival.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Adam West, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
NIGHTWATCH ON THE WEB
Log on and join a live Nightwatch discussion Friday from 3 to 4 p.m. Let's talk about Metrorail considering running their trains later on weekends. Let's talk about clubs and bands. You 'n' me. Let's talk. Go to www.washingtonpost. com to the live discussion area.