May 17, 2004

SHAKIN' STREET NO. 2

Brother JT: An Appreciation

Looking for some garage rock? Psychedelic music for the 21st century? Maybe you like guitar epics, but jam bands aren't your thing. How about some catchy pop tunes or jangly folk-rock?

That genre roll call sounds like the section dividers of a cool record store bucking to be in the High Fidelity sequel, or perhaps an underground U.K. festival lineup. But those descriptions serve as just a starting point when talking about Brother JT.

Who is Brother JT? JT (stands for John Terlesky) is a guitarist-singer-songwriter who has been cranking out albums under a variety of guises and monikers for nearly 20 years. He's also given nightmares to an undisclosed amount of audience members, or at least left many scratching their heads as well as tapping their feet.

JT can be a psychedelic soul man, an acid-damaged gospel preacher or a garage rocker; Trouser Press called him a "diminutive howler." He can be all of these things on consecutive nights, or sometimes within the same song. Go to JT's Web site for more self-depricating humor (well, let's hope it's humor). Shoot him an e-mail and he'll custom-burn CDRs of live shows that fans have recorded, his out-of-print records, unreleased songs, his answering machine messages, radio performances or whatever else he can get his hands on.

He also has releases on established labels. In fact, it currently takes two such labels, Drag City and Birdman, to handle his output. While he has appeared under a variety of guises and with other bands (Crush Nova, Vibrolux, Elk City, etc.), JT's main outlets for his creativity/soul-bearing were the Original Sins and as Brother JT.

With the Sins, he pumped out three-minute tunes that ranged from snappy and catchy pop numbers to raging rockers. Usually beneath the surface of what appeared to be straightforward rock tunes was a strange undercurrent in lyrics that sometimes twisted common thinking ("Easier Done Than Said," "If I Knew Now What I Knew back Then") or matched pleasant music with apocalyptic scenarios (check "End of the World" from 1989's The Hardest Way).

Meanwhile, JT explored his darker side with his solo works. These were longer, experimental songs that blurred the line between psychedelic and psychotic.

In concert, the Sins turned in three-hour sets at obscure holes in the wall like the Funhouse, a dive across the street from Lehigh University in their hometown of Bethlehem, Pa. They pared those sets down to scorching one-hour bursts on frequent trips to Manhattan. A Brother JT show, as one three years ago at New York's Knitting Factory did, could start with one 30-minute-plus workout and end with JT off the stage, playing a tambourine in his underwear while audience members passed his still-feeding-back guitar amongst themselves to bash on.

This Jekyll-and-Hyde career path merged around the turn of the century when the Sins broke up. With no outlet for his more structured pop material, the Brother JT stuff began to change. The 30-plus minute rants and jams began incorporating more traditional song structure and lengths. The music is still out there, but in a more subtle way. A recent solo performance included a song reflecting back on high school that started with restrained strumming and singing before morphing into a crazed louder middle section with maniacal growling, only to return to the quieter part by the end of the number.

The Sins, a quartet that also included an organ player, bassist and drummer, formed out of the Creatures of the Golden Dawn, 60s psych-garage band revivalists in the Lehigh Valley. After JT emerged as the main songwriter in that band, he decided to start his own. He took the rhythm section from that band and added the keyboardist to form the Sins. While '60s pop and garage are starting points and obvious influences, a Sins album is no nostalgia trip.

The first of their 11 albums, 1987's Big Soul (Bar None Records), actually garnered praise in Rolling Stone in an era when that magazine rarely reviewed independent releases. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck was a big enough fan to volunteer to produce Move a few years later. But they were unable to build on that early momentum, thanks in big part to the reluctance to tour nationally.

The end came after an audition to be Peter Noone's backup band on the well-paying oldies circuit as Herman's Hermits -- drummer Dave Ferrara and bassist Ken Bussiere made the cut; JT and organist Dan McKinney did not.

Following the demise of the Sins, JT, while continuing his various solo projects, reunited with Creatures of the Golden Dawn founder-singer Mark Smith. The revamped lineup of the band released a well-received 4-song 7-inch EP on Spainís Butterfly label, and it garnered airplay on Little Steven's nationally syndicated Underground Garage radio program.

However, JT once again decided to veer off on his own path, and he left the Creatures for the second time. Where does that leave JT today? Older, for sure -- but wiser? The 40-ish JT might laugh at that notion. His most recent self-release is called Off Blue, a collection of sedate, reflective pieces with nary a guitar solo to be found. The writing is still strong, but maybe he's on a different kind of drug. Stay tuned. Whichever path he decides to amble down, you can bet it will not be the straight one.

-- By Joe Belock

* Shakin' Street is a regular column by writer-at-large Joe Belock, the host of the Three Chord Monte radio show on free-form WFMU-FM in New Jersey.

Posted by medleyville at May 17, 2004 06:03 PM
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