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Published: Friday, 6/28/2013

Toledo blues-rock band big in Europe

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
(L-R) Steve Smith, Bass/Eric Oblander, Vocals Harp/ Brad Coffin, Guitar/ Phil Durr, guitar /Ê Michael Horrigan, drums from the band "Five Horse Johnson." (L-R) Steve Smith, Bass/Eric Oblander, Vocals Harp/ Brad Coffin, Guitar/ Phil Durr, guitar /Ê Michael Horrigan, drums from the band "Five Horse Johnson."
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Five Horse Johnson’s brand of blue-collar, blues-based boogie rock would seem to make it the prototypical Toledo band until you take into account the idiosyncratic nature of its career arc and quirky method of operation.

Despite recording seven albums since 1996, the group rarely plays in local clubs. At the same time, Five Horse Johnson is so popular in Europe that rather than tour the United States to promote its excellent new release, the band is headed across the Atlantic Ocean for a month’s worth of gigs.

And then there is its musical style: a bracing mix of early ZZ Top or Aerosmith bluesy rock fury, highlighted by harmonica, slide guitars, and gritty jamming. Perhaps the closest comparison would be the Black Keys in their earlier years, but that’s just an approximation and not an exact match.

“I don’t think a lot of bands do our style of thing because we’re not afraid to be a full-on punk rock band or crazy rock metal band and throw in harmonicas and slide guitars, which I think make us fairly interesting,” said Eric Oblander, Five Horse Johnson’s lead singer and harmonica player.

The band has a showcase concert set for Saturday night at the Mainstreet club in East Toledo to launch its new album, “The Taking of Black Heart” before leaving for Europe in mid-July.

“We used to play Toledo a little more frequently, but we found over time that playing once a year or twice a year makes it a little more of an event and we turn it into more of a concert vibe then like hitting the bars once a month or so,” he said.

“For us, we’ve never worried about doing it for money or anything so it’s more fun to have a big event where everyone comes out for one pinpointed show.”

The band is rounded out by Brad Coffin on guitar, Steve Smith on bass, Phil Durr on guitar, and Tim Gahagan on drums.

Oblander, who works as a video editor for a local company, said the only thing better than the European tours, which he described as a “free vacation,” is spending time with his young son.

The front man has a greater appreciation for simple things since suffering a serious health scare in 2004 when he had a stroke.

“It was a weird, freak thing. I was smoking real heavily and stuff like that but the doctors don’t know what caused it and it was a shock that I was still alive because it was a brain stem thing,” he said.

He recovered through physical therapy and said he’s back to 100 percent. “It’s still kind of a weird miracle slash ‘What the hell happened?’ kind of thing.”

A powerful vocalist and harp player, he spent nearly two years touring with the hard rock band Clutch before coming back to Toledo and enrolling in college. He and Coffin started working on the songs that would make up “The Taking of Black Heart” a couple of years ago, working on the story line of a hit man who suffers a dark fate.

A special guest on the album is Cheap Trick lead singer Robin Zander who handles vocals on a cover of the Rod Stewart/Faces song “You’re My Girl.” One of Five Horse Johnson’s recording engineers is the soundman for Cheap Trick, which provided the connection for Oblander and Coffin to ask Zander if he’d like to sing the song.

Much to their surprise, he agreed, so the band sent him the track and he sang over it.

After Saturday’s show, Five Horse Johnson will take a couple of weeks to get things in order before heading off to Europe for concerts in German, Spain, Holland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.

Oblander said the band has often tried to dissect why it is popular in those countries.

“I think that one of the reasons is based on the fact that we’re kind of a weird mix of blues and rock and a little bit of metal in there and I think that goes over better there than here.

“I think people over there are more in tune to trying out different stuff. Also, most people over there are big blues fans and jazz fans — American blues. I think we kind of scratch that itch for them where it’s rocking out but it’s got some slide guitar and harmonicas.”

Five Horse Johnson will perform Saturday night at Mainstreet, 141 Main St., with opening acts Snake Head Ritual and the Suede Brothers. Tickets are $10 at the doors, which open at 9 p.m.

Contact Rod Lockwood at
 rlockwood@theblade.com 
or 419-724-6159.



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