Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, February 7 2019
It was some time in 2006 when Shore music fans came to the sobering realization that, effective immediately, they would have to share dibs on Matt O’Ree with the rest of the planet.
The clincher was Guitar Center’s annual King of the Blues competition for that year; a contest that the young blues-rock guitarist from Holmdel aced over a field of thousands of contenders for the throne. In addition to the instantly conferred cred, it was an accolade that netted O’Ree a cash prize, a Gibson Guitars endosement, a personal Guitar Center shopping spree — and a brand new Scion automobile, about which more in a bit.
It was a sure shot in the arm for the young veteran who’d made his rep playing in just about every indoor or outdoor setting to be found on the regional scene — from the portable parkside stages of the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation’s summer series, to the hallowed halls of BB King’s, and pretty much every barroom, bistro, barn, backyard BBQ or boardwalk bench between.
“I was using credit cards to finance my career up to that point,” recalls the guitarist who formed his first edition of the Matt O’Ree some 25 years ago, in 1994. “So no matter how much mileage I get out of that win, being able to pay off those cards was the greatest feeling!”
That said, the single greatest thrill of Matt O’Ree’s career arguably occurred nearly a decade after that, when he was tapped by Bon Jovi to serve as an onstage guitarist for the mega-band’s Burning Bridgestour of major international markets.
“Suddenly I went from playing to a couple of dozen regulars at a local bar, to being in front of anywhere from 50 to 70 thousand people,” he says. “It was an awesome perspective to be able to experience…truly a magic moment.”
As the hometown guitar hero confesses, the aftermath of the Bon Jovi tour was an interval that “took a bit of adjustment,”while he resumed a schedule of hyper-local gigs that included a first-Friday monthly set at the music-friendly Red Bank bar Jamian’s — a tradition that he maintains to this day.
At the same time, a sold-out “homecoming” show at the Stone Pony served to “O’Ree-inforce” the fact that the guitarist was operating on a newly heightened level of play — a fact borne out by the release of his 2016 album Brotherhood.
A followup to such multiple Asbury Music Award-winning opuses as Shelf Life, the long-player found the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist (then newly named to the NY/NJ Blues Hall of Fame) working within some rarefied company — in particular Bon Jovi charter member David Bryan, with whom he cemented his friendship and professional partnership via their co-authorship of the album’s breakout track “My Everything Is You.”
The keyboard man would go on to make several guest appearances at O’Ree gigs — and listeners would soon enough discover that the cut “Black Boots” boasted backing vocals by one Bruce Springsteen. In addition to the legendary Memphis guitarman Steve Cropper, a deeper delve into the recording sessions revealed additional collaborations with Blues Traveler harpist John Popper and Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell— with O’Ree divulging that he’s “still sitting on”tracks featuring those artists, whose contributions were cut from the final release due to legal issues.
Even with all of that collaborative energy zinging about, the most significant partnership of Matt’s career was soon to manifest itself — and when the Matt O’Ree Band takes to the stage of Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre this Saturday, February 9, audiences will key in on a genuine labor of love in big, bluesy bloom.
Photos by CouCou Photography, courtesy of Estelle Massry
Scheduled for 8 pm, the concert represents an exceedingly rare opportunity to catch with O’Ree and company in a theater-format setting, sans beer bottles and barroom chatter (not that there’s anything wrongwith that). It’s also, believe it or not, the bandleader’s first time performing on the West Long Branch campus, from which his brother and sister both graduated.
“It’s a great, beautiful theater, and I’m looking forward to playing there,” says O’Ree of the venue that has hosted everything from the most exotic/esoteric performing artists from around the world — to such denizens of our own big beautiful back yard as Southside Johnny, Pat Guadagno, Jody Joseph, and The Weeklings.
Joining Matt for the occasion will be regular O’Ree band drummer John Hummel, recently added bassman Lex Lehman, guest keyboard player John Ginty (a veteran of Allmans tours; recently seen at the Wonder Bar in a well-received gig with Anthony Krizan and Sandy Mack) — and the band’s not-so-secret weapon; a double-barreled dose of vocal vivaciousness that boasts not one but twoequally star-powered peers.
Longtime observers of the Shore music scene know Layonne Holmes as the ultra-versatile “woman of a thousand bands” whose myriad projects have ranged from collaborations with her late mom (and early-times Bruce bandmate) Delores, to sublime salutes to Billie Holiday and other legendary ladies of jazz — plus memberships in everything from Love Among Freaks, Tim McLoone and the Shirleys and Holiday Express, to Motor City Revue and Gonzo’s Funky Family.
Then there’s the artist formerly known as Eryn Shewell — and known since 2017 as Eryn O’Ree or simply Eryn. The dynamite singer, whose solo endeavors married a bloozy roots-rock grit to a savvy sense of classic glamour (and who performs her own spotlight set to open Saturday’s show), brought the best of all those worlds and more to her union with the guitarist — a union born when the musical (and literal) matchmaker Sandy Mack “gave an extra push for Eryn and I to get together.”
“They’re their own stars…I almost feel bad that they’re singing with me,” laughs Matt, in reference to Eryn and Layonne. “But then I remember all that they bring to our sound, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Having recently returned from Los Angeles, where he looked in on some Ginty studio sessions with the Grammy winning producer-engineer Jim Scott (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks, Wilco), O’Ree is “hoping to do a new record over the winter…in my heart, I still want to put out albums!”
At the same time, the guitarist plans a possible spring 2019 audio and/or video release based on his most recent headline show at the Stone Pony — a December 2018 set that saw Bryan sitting in with the band, and which served as “a great showcase for our energy.”
“A friend of mine has an original 1959 Gibson Les Paul, and he brught it to the show for me to play that night,” says the connoisseur of vintage instruments. “The results were amazing.”
“I was originally a (Fender) Stratocaster guy…and now I mostly use a Les Paul,” he adds. “A great Les Paul plays better than just about anything else.”
“I’ve always loved the Pony…The Saint always sounds great…and I love to sit in at the Wonder Bar, with Sandy or with an act like Bell Bottom Blues,” says O’Ree, name-checking some of his favorite Shore places to play. “The Langosta is great for acoustic music…and the new stage at Asbury Lanes is awesome.”
Then there are those intimate watering holes, like the aforementioned Jamian’s (“one of the real gems”) — and the Rumson neighborhood landmark Barnacle Bill’s, where a recent duo set by Matt and Eryn attracted the attention of an eager-to-catch-up Jon Bon Jovi.
O’Ree isn’t “burning bridges” with the Bon Jovi band by any means — and has indicated that JBJ has “left things open” regarding any future projects together. But as Matt approaches both his 47th birthday and his silver anniversary as a bandleader, the emphasis in the here and now is on building up from the bedrock-solid foundation of the 2019 model year Matt O’Ree Band — a sporty vehicle with plenty of headroom for assembled starpower and skillsets; one that’s able to tackle any stylistic terrain.
All of which brings to mind the question: just whatever became of that prize Scion — you know; the car from the Guitar Center contest?
“Oh, that,” laughs O’Ree. “I went to the dealer to pick it up, took it for a test spin, drove it back to the dealer and asked, how much you gonna give me for it?”
“I decided to stick with my ‘78 Pontiac Trans Am — which I still have!”