Review: Ivas John Concert combines comedy and music in two set concert

Paul Watson, Lamp Staff

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Acoustic music, singing, laughter, and applause filled the Thorne Deuel Auditorium in the basement of the Illinois State Museum.   

Ivas John and Brian Curran performed original compositions and covered Americana songswhich includes country, folk, bluegrass, and blues tunes, for the September 12 installment of the Music at the Museum series. Chris Vallillo is the producer of the series.   

During the first set, John quipped, “Didn’t know you were getting a comedy show tonight, now did you?” 

The concert was comprised of two sets with nine songs each.  John played guitar and harmonica.  Sometimes he would use a harmonica holder or rack when he played both instruments at the same time.   

Curran either played a steel string acoustic guitar or a National resonator guitar.  After opening the show with two John originals, “Here I Am” and “Going Back to Arkansa,” Curran identified the guitar he played as a National steel guitar and joked it was “good in a bar fight.”   

The two opening songs are from John’s 2016 CD, Good Days A Comin.   The CD reached number one on the folk radio charts and was nominated for Blues Blast Magazine’s Acoustic Album of the Year.  The duo also played “Roll Mississippi” from this CD. 

Two other originals made the night’s playlist, “The Way Things Have to Be” from the Ivas John Band CD, Doin What’s Natural, and “Weary Mind Blues” from the CD St. Louis Blues Society Presents: 18 in 18. 

The remaining 13 songs were covers of country, bluegrass or country blues songs.  Five have been performed by seven-time Grammy award winner and blind bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson:  “The Call of the Road,” “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” “The New River Train,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” and “I Am a Pilgrim.” 

Other covers included the Merle Travis-penned “Sixteen Tons,” country-bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s “Preachin’ on the Old Camp Ground,” country-bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” bluesman Tommy Johnson’s “Canned Heat Blues,” and western swing band Jimmie Revard and His Oklahoma Playboys’ “Daddy’s Got the Deep Elm Blues,” which has also been covered by rock-era artists, such as the Grateful Dead and Levon Helm. 

John and Curran did an excellent job playing guitar together.  Their musical parts avoided overlapping similar tones that would muddy their sound.  While one guitarist produced bass notes, the other filled the musical space with chimmy high notes.  On several songs, both played solos, and on one song they played solos back to back. 

Two songs had notable arrangements.  John included gypsy jazz elements in the bluegrass song “The Call of the Road.”  Curran arranged Stephen Foster’s 1848 song, “Oh! Susanna,” in a slow tempo.  As usual for recording artists, the racist verse was omitted. 

Vallillo, who is also a guitarist and singer, opened the musical performance a little after 7 p.m. for an audience of mostly older people and several college students with a cover of “The Death of Carl Shelton.”  Vallillo said there was a tradition of death songs in folk music, and the song he selected to open the concert was about the murder of Carl Shelton, a bootlegger and gang leader from Wayne County in Southern Illinois, in the 1940s.   

He accompanied his singing with a Larson Brothers model 551 steel string acoustic guitar manufactured in the 1920s.  The company was based in Chicago, Illinois, Vallillo said.  The 551 model was among early efforts to make the acoustic guitar louder, Vallillo said, by using steel strings instead of gut strings and laminated x-braces on the underside of the guitar top or soundboard. 

Several of the students at the show attend LLCC and were covering the event to complete a concert report requirement for a music appreciation class.  

To begin the second set after the intermission, Vallillo performed an acoustic instrumental, “Sunday Driving on a Monday Afternoon,” that he composed.  Vallillo played a resonator guitar with a slide. 

During the intermission, cookies and coffee were available to the audience. John and Curran talked with attendees and sold CDs.  During the performance, John claimed his CDs were guaranteed.  He said, “If you buy my CD, take it home and don’t like it, you can personally return the CD to me and I’ll give you a CD that I don’t like.” 

John was born in Chicago, Illinois, to immigrant Lithuanian parents.  He attended Southern Illinois University.  He now lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.  He has been a professional musician for 15 years.  Besides social media accounts, John has a website, www.ivasjohn.com. 

Curren announced at the concert that he recently turned 43 years old.  He lives in the St. Louis area and has a website, www.briantcurran.com 

The next installment of the Music at the Museum series features Noah Derksen, a folk singer and guitarist, from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 10, 2019. Admission costs $10 for adults and $8 for museum members and children under 12. 

Paul Watson can be reached at [email protected]