Dennis Johnson had a revelation. In fact, he’s had lots of them.
“The first time I picked up a guitar as a little kid, I felt this thing, like I had done it in the past,” he said. “It was bizarre. Déjà vu. I’ve had a few moments where I literally stopped in my tracks, where I had this feeling you are supposed to be a musician.”
Now a full-grown slide guitar virtuoso, Johnson has an acclaimed new album, “Revelation,” and a headlining show Thursday at Live at Lakeview in South Lake Tahoe. Temperatures are expected to be about 25 degrees higher than Johnson’s Memorial Weekend appearance at the same venue during the inaugural Big Blue Music & Blues festival.
“It was cold, but it was gorgeous,” he said. “You can’t get a much better venue then the beach at Lake Tahoe.”
Dennis Johnson & The Revelators will play Tahoe while its album is No. 1 on Roots Music Report’s Top 50 Blues Rock Album Chart. After its July 15 release, it debuted at No. 2, and the next week surpassed Albert Castiglia’s “I Got Love.”
Johnson’s fourth solo album was made with the help of some of the best in the business: his longtime bassist Jonathan Stoyanoff, drummer Anton Fig (best known as playing with Joe Bonamassa), keyboardist Bob Fridzema (Walter Trout, Joanna Shaw Taylor), and engineer Chris Bell (Samantha Fish, Kenny Wayne Shepard).
“When Covid hit, I took the athlete approach and treated it as the offseason and I really spent so much time upping the ante on the guitar and upping the ante from a producer standpoint and really spending time on groove,” Johnson said. “If you have a great groove, it’s easy for the guitar and keyboard players.”
Upon watching a Joe Bonamassa concert video, Johnson had another revelation.
“If there was one drummer I could have on this project, it would be Anton,” he said.
Anton was impressed with Johnson’s demos and the collaboration began. The famed drummer even brought fellow South African Kevin Shirley, Bonamassa’s producer, to mix one of the songs, “32-20 Blues.”
Johnson said he spent an enormous amount of time during the lockdown improving his slide skills, “… articulations with a slide, types of vibrato, sliding up or down to a note, and moving the slide at various angles like a lap steel player to connect the notes, which made my playing way more expressive.
“I kept thinking, ‘What can I do better?’ I was trying to make the slide talk more. Louis Armstrong said it’s not how many notes you can play it’s what can you do with a note. Can you articulate it like a great vocalist? I wanted to make record that would make a great platform to tour with.”
The album opens with a rousing arrangement of the Don Nix classic “Going Down.” Another song, is a modern, speedy arrangement of Joe Williams’s 1935 blues standard, “Please Don’t Go.” The title track “Revelation” is an anthemic instrumental, and, as is Johnson’s wont, there is a gospel, “Salvation Bound.”
“People were going through enough stuff with Covid, so I tried to be really upbeat,” Johnson said. “The message of blues is you can go through a tough time but there’s hope at the end of the tunnel. Most of the songs, I am trying to put some hope into them.”
Born in San Francisco, Johnson grew up in San Mateo and now lives in Sacramento. He was intrigued by slide guitar the first time he heard Robert Johnson play one on an old record. As a teenager, Johnson went up to the city to see slide stars such as Roy Rogers and Ron Hacker.
In 2019, just before the pandemic, Johnson shared the stage with Eric Gales, and he had another revelation. Gales was advised by his brother to not try to be another Jimi Hendrix and to just be himself. Johnson took that same advice to heart.
“I had to embrace being me,” he said. “For a long time, I was heavily influenced by Robert Johnson, and I was heavily influenced by Roy Rogers. That’s always going to be on my plane. During the pandemic, I decided that’s always going to be a part of what I do, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to be me.”
Being me, for Johnson, is very good. Live at Lakeview’s crowd will learn this upon hearing the first note from Johnson’s singing slide guitar. Like a revelation.
Dennis Johnson & The Revelators
(Johnson on slide guitar; Jonathan Stoyanoff bass; Jim Frink drums; Andre Stone keys)
Live at Lakeview
When: 4:30 p.m-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4
Opener: Luke & Kaylee
Where: Lakeview Commons, South Lake Tahoe
Where else: Battle, Axe & Tracks, Reno Oct. 1-2 and Harlow’s in Sacramento on Oct. 12