IVAS JOHN: Doing it his way

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ivas John is an unusual fellow.

Let's start with the name. Ivas is Lithuanian. John is his middle name. His last name is Dambrauskas. Not your standard bluesman's moniker, so he's Ivas John for short.

He's the opposite of short, though. He's a presence on stage the way Robert Cray is, his flickering smile telling no one what he's he's thinking, just that he's doing exactly what he wants to do.

Ivas didn't start playing the guitar until he was in his late teens. He taught himself. One day his dad, Ed, walked by his room and heard Stevie Ray Vaughan on the boom box, but the guitar sound was in stereo. Ivas was matching the guitar master lick for lick.

He's always been like that. "Ivas was a kid that could pick up anything and be great at it," Ed says.

Ivas John performs at the Water Street Lounge on Friday, August 30, 2007. (@SL_cutline_body:AARON EISENHAUER ~ aeisenhauer@semissourian.com)

Another Ivas difference: The songs on the Carbondale, Ill.-based Ivas John Band's CD, "Street Music," are all originals. He co-wrote all but two of them with his father, a truck driver in Chicago. Sometimes they sing parts of songs to each other over the phone. Other times they huddle in Chicago or Carbondale for a few days.

Telling these songs from one of the deliberately obscure blues tunes the band covers can be impossible. They sound like classics. "I Got a Woman," the first song chosen for their CD, could be in the arsenal of any blues band. It's a song about having a woman who has another man. That's the blues.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about Ivas John is that he's a 26-year-old who has chosen playing the blues as his vocation. And boy, can he play. His Ibanez guitar sounds liquid and his Stratocaster stings. His playing is tasty when called for and blinding fast when speed is the need. His voice is a plaintive yelp that infers as much as it says.

John has surrounded himself with musicians who love playing the blues as much as he does. Bassist James Lyman has played in most every kind of band, including bluegrass, but this is his favorite one. "It changes every night. We never play songs the same way twice," he says.

Keyboardist Brad Bell has been with the band about a year and is the youngest member. Some people in the band's audiences are even younger than he is and some are much older. They come out for the blues. "It's cool to see the mix you bring out," he says.

Charlie Morrill, the band's new drummer, adds a new energy to the band's former sound. He's particularly fond of 12-bar shuffles.

The band often plays five or six nights a week in a Midwest circuit that runs through Chicago, Terre Haute, Ind., St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn. They have a regular Sunday night gig at the Key West Lounge in Carbondale and play every other Thursday night at Port Cape's Waterstreet Lounge in downtown Cape Girardeau. They're in town tonight.

A few years ago Ivas John was another kid practicing his guitar in his SIU dorm room. Somehow the leader of a Carbondale band called the Blues Bandits heard about his playing and invited him to audition. Ivas was thrilled. "I went from playing in my dorm room to playing in front of 500 people," Ivas said.

Other jobs followed with Ripley Pryor, son of blues harp great Snooky Pryor, a band called Delta Fuzz and the Jim Skinner Blues Band. The Skinner band opened for Carbondale blues legend Big Larry Williams one night at Hangar 9 in Carbondale. As Ivas finished Big Larry came up to him and said, "Son, don't even think of putting your stuff off that stage. You're playing with me now."

He did for three years and gradually started singing with the band before Big Larry came onstage. Eventually Ivas wanted his own band. "I had my own idea," he said.

Ed Dambrauskas comes by his affection for the blues naturally. Fleeing the Russians, his family spent 5 1/2 years living in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the end of World War II. Ivas's mother, Sabina, is a Lithuanian emigre, too.

In Chicago, Ed heard lots of the greats, including Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. He played guitar and fooled around with writing songs but was too shy to play on stage.

Music and guitars were around his house all the time when Ivas was growing up. His older brother, Nick, was a musician. Their father listened to everything from country music to opera. But Ivas was already 17 or 18 when the blues got around to speaking to him. "The music found me," he says. "You never know what you're destined to do when you're younger. It took that long."

The Ivas John Band mixes in some jazz as well when the audience is right for it.

Ivas doesn't have an agent. Handling all the bookings himself can get discouraging when a club owner won't give the band a chance.

"I don't want to be rich and famous," he says, "but I want to turn a lot of people onto the music."

He knows what he wants. "I want to get the recognition I think I deserve," he says. His fans want the same for him.

Ivas has a following in Cape Girardeau. The band calls travel agent Debbie Naeter their "Cape Mother" because she lets them sleep on air mattresses at her home when they play here. She likens Ivas to a young Eric Clapton.

Connie Stothar, who teaches art and physical education, follows the band here from Carbondale. She takes guitar lessons from Ivas and counts him as a friend. She's at the Key West Lounge on Sunday nights. "That's where you'll find all the other musicians," she says. "His biggest following is the other musicians."

Last weekend, Ed was in Carbondale working with Ivas on a new song. They don't have a title yet, but this is the first line: "My baby got dressed up when the carnival came to town."

Ivas has decided a blues harp would sound good on the song, so he's decided to learn how to play one. John Popper had better watch out.

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