Chop it up: Music stars bring axes to Reno for 2 days

Dennis Johnson’s favorite axe is a vintage Martin parlor guitar. The slide player is one of the many great guitarists who will play at the Oct. 1-2 Battle, Axe & Tracks in Reno.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Some of today’s greatest axe-wielders will display their chops Oct. 1-2 at a festival in Reno. The Paul Bunyan types won’t be there.

Axe is the most-commonly used nickname for a guitar, and lovers of the instrument will feel like they are in heaven when they attend the long-anticipated Battle, Axe & Tracks festival in Rancho San Rafael Park.

The event was to be held in 2021, but a new variant of Covid emerged.

While concerts were put on hold for more than a year, guitarists such as slide player Dennis Johnson had uninterrupted time to “woodshed,” that is, to practice and write. A Bay Area native whose guitar influences range from Robert Johnson to Roy Rogers (the one with chops, not chaps), Johnson spent time honing his vibrato, which he calls a guitar player’s fingerprint.

Johnson’s extra work has paid off. His fourth album, “Revelation,” has been in the Top 10 on blues charts for six weeks, one of the songs hitting No. 1, and two more reaching No. 1 on a blues-rock chart. His songs also are being played on Sirus Radio’s Channel 74 B.B. King’s Bluesville station. He’s also booked a 2023 tour in Europe.

Since his rousing Live at Lakeview performance in August at South Lake Tahoe, Johnson bought a new axe, a Gibson SG, which will supplement his primary guitar, an vintage Martin parlor model.

“I was searching for a cool guitar to add something I was missing onstage,” Johnson said. “I just love it. It’s the Duane Allman thing, right? I love all my guitars. I don’t keep my guitars unless I really, really, really love them. I don’t have 20-30 guitars. Other people do and God bless them but for me, I’m a minimalist.”

The minimalist will bring “at least three or four” to Battle, Axe & Tracks. Different tunings, you know.

Johnson will be in esteemed company at the festival, and he was happy to give a short rundown on some of the headliners:

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: When the pandemic hit, I literally spent months listening to rhythm sections of bands that I thought were really good. And one of those bands was his band, in addition to Joe Bonamassa, Robert Randolph and Tedeschi Trucks. His drummer (Chris Layton) is phenomenal. His bass player (Kevin McCormick) is phenomenal. And Kenny Wayne is a great guitar player. I have great respect for him also as a band leader. It’s the grooves. I look at drummers and say, can you play the drums alone and get the crowd going? And do you leave enough space, and do you fit with the bass? You say Kenny Wayne, I say phenomenal player but also phenomenal band.

Samantha Fish: It’s the generational thing with Samantha. She’s a great player and she loves slide guitar. Again, the band she has evolved into this very groove-oriented band. She’s a great performer.

Jimmie Vaughan: He is very different than is brother Stevie Ray. It’s the way that they come through the strings. They embraced who they are as individuals because it is a contrast. Both phenomenal players.

Robert Randolph: He can do the country and western thing, the rock thing, the Hendrix thing. He can do all kinds of stuff. His vibrato’s very good. He’s very good a pairing pedals, almost like a cook with ingredients. How he uses the volume pedal and wah-wah pedal is extremely cool. And I love his band and I love his groove. Great musicians that use space really well and they really listen to each other.

Ally Venable: She’s a very good player. She’d trending on being one of the future anchors. She has a lot of passion. She has a sense of what a band should be. She connects with the audience. Yeah, very good.

Carolyn Wonderland: The thing with fingerstyle players is your fingers have different types of skin and textures on it and then you have fingernails and different angles of your fingernail. You take a guitar string and you hit it with the flesh of your finger, and it sounds a certain way. Now you hit it with your fingernails and it sounds very different. You don’t even need a pedal. One of things with her is what she can get with tones and textures. Which is amazing.

Sue Foley:  I listen to guitar players and what’s coming through the strings. Is their soul coming through? There is a lot of energy in her playing and it’s a distinct sound. She sounds very unique to me, and I think that’s cool. We all start out trying to imitate people and she’s at that level where she’s embraced who she is. She’s a phenomenal player.

-Tim Parsons

To learn more about all of the artists who will perform, go to https://www.battleaxeandtracks.com/music

Battle, Axe & Tracks will be limited to 4,000 attendees. To purchase tickets, visit https://www.battleaxeandtracks.com

In addition to the national touring artists, the winner of Axe Battle will appear onstage, opening Sunday’s (Oct. 2) show. The local axe-wielders are Mylo McCormick, Jason King, Alfredo, Shay Bertz, Michael J. Jarlson, Tyler Smelich, Jonny Rolling, Jonny Yocum and Kat Heart.

Hosted by artist and radio personality Max Volume, Axe Battle will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, at NoVi in the Eldorado Hotel Casino. The clearcut winner will be decided by a combination of celebrity judges, a state-of-the-art applause-o-meter, and who can bring the most fans. 

Tickets for the all-ages show are $10. Advance purchase is suggested: LINK

Related story: Samantha Fish streamlines her band.

Below: Dennis Johnson plays his new Gibson SG in a video released this week

A spirited Live at Lakeview crowd witnesses this onstage scene with Dennis Johnson & The Revelators in August in South Lake Tahoe.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
Samantha Fish keeps a cigar box in her quiver of axes.
Michael Smyth / Tahoe Onstage
Jason King
Axe Battle contestant Jason King, right, sits in for two songs with Robert Randolph at Crystal Bay Casino in 2013.
Carolyn Wonderland
Carolyn Wonderland rocks the High Sierra Music with a Telecaster n 2013.
Tahoe Onstage image by Tim Parsons
Tahoe Onstage
Kenny Wayne Shepherd plays a beat-up Stratocaster at Lake Tahoe’s MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa in 2016.
Kurt Johnson / Tahoe Onstage

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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