Young musicians seeking to book gigs for the first time might want to pull up a chair and listen closely to a man who has been doing it for nearly 40 years.
His name is Johnny Vermilye, which shouldn’t resonate with many. He goes by Johnny V. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you probably haven’t seen much live music in the region.
How has Johnny V, 62, managed to stay relevant for so long?
For one thing, he goes about the job in a professional manner and adheres to what he has come to call “the code.” He has separate codes for solo shows, for band shows and for dealing with clubs.
Part of the code for solo shows involves leaving his phone off for the duration and seldom taking a break, unless his bladder demands it. It involves reading the room to see if what he’s doing is working. If not, try something else, but don’t try too hard. Never try too hard.
“I think you should have a cheese line,” V said. “You don’t want to be coming across cheesy. Sometimes just let things breathe. Just because there’s some down time it doesn’t mean you have to say, ‘How’s everybody doing tonight? Blah, blah, blah!’ Otherwise, you could end up hearing crickets. And then where do you go from there?”
And, he said, if you think playing for an audience makes you just a little cooler than the people watching you, think again.
“What I would tell anybody, especially if you’re doing a solo thing, some people think this is going to be their trump card in life and think they can walk around with their chest out in a certain way and speak a certain way, but they need to realize this isn’t the trump card in life,” V said. “Be nice. Be kind. Show gratitude.”
When playing solo, V said, read the room.
“You should recognize who’s paying attention and who’s not. I’ll throw a Grateful Dead song out there,” he said. “Dead Heads are everywhere, so I’ll play ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and all a sudden they’ll find you.”
If you wear a tie-dyed shirt at the Upsadaisy Market on Sunday, July 3 or the European Market on Saturday, July 9, don’t be shocked if Johnny V spots you and breaks into “Bertha.”
At a recent show in the dining room at the west end of LeRoy’s Hot Stuff in Porter, he knew most of the patrons in the small crowd, counted them as friends and rightly guessed they would be interested in hearing some of his original work. The song addressing unconditional love was about his dog, naturally. He penned “Outside Looking In” during his 10 years working with “Rock for Autism.”
His four albums of original work can be found on YouTube.com and his latest project involved writing the soundtrack for an as yet unreleased independent film, “Later,” billed as a “post-apocalyptic thriller.”
But his calling card remains live music, and his “code” for playing with a band differs from the solo one.
“I’ve finally reached in the last five years or so what I’ll tolerate and what I won’t,” V said. “I remember the first time I had to let a musician go because he was a cancer in the band. Amazing guitar player, but I was scared as hell letting him go because I thought he was so important to us. I thought, how can we do a song that I felt we could only do with this person, and as it turned out, it was the quality of the song, it wasn’t that guy. All of a sudden I’m playing with a bunch of John Paxsons vs. having a Michael Jordan, and I love Michael, I don’t mean anything negative by that. That’s when I learned you need to get a bunch of team players who play together.”
By being the leader of the band, the one who books the shows, arrives first by a couple of hours to check the sound, and leaves last, Vermilye has an easier time getting top talent to join him.
“I always thought I was the weakest link musically in most bands that I played in, and to this day I still feel that,” said Vermilye, who first played at LeRoy’s in 1993 with a band called “Take A Bite.”
That might sound like false modesty, but it’s not. He means it. And it’s more a compliment than an insult to say that about himself because it speaks to how much talented musicians in great demand enjoy playing with him.
“I also realize there are important things that some of the greatest musicians that I’ve played with don’t have a clue about, but thank me for that, and that is making sure they know where to go to unload for the band, whether they get free eats or drinks and all that, or just dealing with booking, how to book, and realizing they’re going to deal with all sorts of personalities, all sorts of egos,” he said.
In almost 40 years of performing, he said he can count on one hand the number of club owners with whom he has clashed.
“I think part of it has been my nature to figure out how to make something work vs. having an excuse to not do something, realizing we’re not all in the same walks of life and we don’t all part our hair the same, but we can still work together,” V said.
On a recent Friday night at LeRoy’s, a four-piece band Johnny V put together showed what can happen when extremely talented musicians unburdened by ego problems click. Elite drummer Bill Romer, highly respected bass player Janis Wallin and creative guitarist Dave Gans played for well over three hours, covering a wide array of artists from the Grateful Dead to Tom Petty to Led Zeppelin to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, etc. Playing on the stage at the east end of LeRoy’s, in front of a small dance floor near the bar, the band blasted adrenaline into the room and drove the patrons out of their seats and onto the dance floor.
How does Johnny V assemble so much talent? Why do they say yes to him?
“He’s one of the best people I know,” Wallin said. “I feel like he’s very sincere and earnest as a person and it just comes through in his music, so whenever I play with him it feels good, and he always brings good people to play with him.”
The drummer answered the same question.
“He’s an old friend and we go way back, probably about 25 years, and I love his originals,” Romer said. “He’s always known for good writing and good musicians around him and that means a lot because he’s a good worker too, you know? He does what he says he’s going to do and that’s that. Yeah, I enjoy playing with John a lot.”
When musicians of that ilk get together, what they play is only half the equation. How they play it, which is to say different every time, is what makes it so interesting, so invigorating.
The Grateful Dead’s upbeat “Friend of the Devil” took a turn toward a virtual whisper and was spiced with psychedelic electric guitar.
The band didn’t rehearse together. The turns just happened.
“These guys are so good that it’s just easy and a pleasure to do it, so if somebody wants to go in some direction, everybody’s listening to everybody else, so we all follow,” Gans said. “And then somebody else wants to take a turn and go somewhere else. We all listen and we all follow. That’s what makes it fun.”
They communicate with their instruments and their eyes, keeping their heads up and their ears tuned.
“Also, with the guitar, sometimes they’ll play the melody after the solo, they’ll play the melody to come back into the song,” Romer said. “It’s real professional. I like that.”
Watching what a great time the musicians had making a room full of people have a great time begged the question: Is there another workplace wherein the workers have so much fun?
“I don’t know,” Wallin said. “I don’t know if there is. I like it. Maybe sports. You’re on a team and you’re working together. That could be similar. I can imagine a basketball team. I feel like that is similar. It’s fast-paced and they’ve got to adjust.” Vermilye’s positions as a high school athlete at Crete Monee in Illinois align nicely with his dual roles as a band leader and solo artist. He was a quarterback on the football team and a catcher on the baseball team, positions of leadership. As a pitcher for the baseball team, he experienced what it’s like to be all alone on stage when the stuff you’re trying isn’t working that day and an adjustment on the fly is in order, nice training for a solo musician.
Vermilye said he gave some thought to attending Eastern Illinois University to play football and baseball, but instead took a job at U.S. Steel until he was laid off. His time as a salesman of fire safety equipment ended recently and he’s devoting all of his energy to music.
He’s a soulful, folksy, bluesy solo artist who makes good use of his acoustic guitar, tells stories behind the songs, and has a knack for playing the favorite tunes of fans of various artists, not just the obvious ones.
For example, he’ll play all of Neil Young’s widely known hits and then out of nowhere, tackle “Ambulance Blues,” a lyrical masterpiece wrapped in mystery and delivered in a mournful tone, too long for radio stations, but a favorite of hardcore Neil fans.
Johnny V has a way of reading a room and covering the right song at the right moment. Occasionally, he’ll ask for requests. One night at Zorn in Michigan City, a customer asked during a break if he knew Gillian Welch’s “Annabelle.” He did not. Six weeks later, the same customer walked through the door as he was playing that song, about an Alabama sharecropper mourning the loss of her baby.
That sort of dedication to his craft and his audience makes customers want to support him.
Performing live shows for decades, he must have seen a famous face in the audience somewhere along the way, right? Correct. He recognized the face under a hat tilted forward.
The conversation was as short as it was memorable.
“I like what you’re doing here,” Johnny Depp told him.
V: “Thanks, Johnny.”
Depp: “You’re welcome, Johnny.”