Dean Johanesen brings on the solo swing

The Bradenton-based, Tampa Bay-frequented singer-songwriter settles into his vintage sounds

click to enlarge Dean Johanesen's influences range from speakeasy to circus - MAX KELLY
Max Kelly
Dean Johanesen's influences range from speakeasy to circus

Bradenton-based Dean Johanesen has worked the Tampa Bay scene so hard and for so long that we consider him one of our own. He’s taken a surprising turn in the f

ew years since he dissolved The Human Condition to go the solo singer-songwriter route.

“I’d been at it for almost 10 years with different people coming and going,” Johanesen said in a recent interview. “After the last lineup started falling apart, I thought I’d pursue the solo thing, which would give me more options to change direction musically, tour a lot more and try something different.”

He’s spiced up his repertoire of acoustic guitar-driven fare with a sonic palette that calls on Spanish rumba-style instrumentals, speakeasy-era Americana, and swinging hot club jazz dosed in circus tent hues. In addition to original material, his sets are studded with perfectly executed covers of songs like Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing” and “Besame Mucho” by Consuelo Velázquez.

Even though he studied jazz and commercial music performance at Five Towns College of Music, nothing he’d written had been jazz-oriented until a circus-swing tune came to him virtually out of the blue. “It was called ‘Circus Queen,’ and it hearkened back to some of the stuff I was doing in college but still felt like a new direction.”


His stylistic change was further spurred by a non-musical source. “The inspiration actually came from a book I was reading about old circus history,” Johanesen explained, Sara Gruen’s historical novel Water for Elephants, which led him to biographies about the Ringling Brothers and Thomas Edison and prompted him to dig even further into 1920s and early ’30s-era history.

“I noticed there were a lot of parallels to what was going on in our society today” — from the fight against Prohibition and the current push for marijuana legalization and regulation, to the housing and financial crises, to the crime lords who’ve made money on the black market through the ages, to the sideshows and circuses that have entertained and served as a means of escape for the general populace — “and I kind of took off in that direction writing.”

Live, he plays clad in vaguely vintage vestments, with finely trimmed ‘stache and goatee and felt Homburg atop his head, while projections of vintage films featuring Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and circus-themed clips play in black-and-white projections behind him. Despite being an accomplished axeman with a warm and pleasant vocal quality, the real secret behind his success is his versatility and ability to check his ego at the door.

click to enlarge Dean live at Hideaway Cafe, a favored performance space. - JIM TIZZANO
Jim Tizzano
Dean live at Hideaway Cafe, a favored performance space.

“If you want to do this for a living, you have to wear a lot of different hats. Sometimes you have to take that restaurant gig where you’re background music and no one’s really listening,” Johanesen explained. “It can be hard to do, but I’ve been trying to find ways to be inspired even in those situations.”

He also faces the typical challenge of all solo operations: “How do you capture an audience as just one person? How do you make up for the shift in dynamics or energy that you get from a full-band lineup?”

For him, the solution is adding tools to his arsenal, like fleshing out his live sound and looping his playing, a technique that has conversely helped improve his ability to solo and improvise. He’s also spent a lot of time observing what works for other artists — how they tell a story, the way they engage with their audiences — to spark ideas about what he can do better. “I think if you’re really human with people and you’re honest about where you’re coming from, and you’re open enough to listen to them, too, and create a dialogue, it becomes a little bit easier to connect.”

In addition to the dates he plays this weekend, Johanesen is among the local talents tapped to play this year’s Gasparilla Music Festival, and the following week sees him kicking off a Southern tour with dates surrounding his unofficial SXSW performances in Austin. “This will be my seventh year heading back out that way.”

He has about an album’s worth of era-themed material for his next full-length. “I’ve got some different instrumentation on this one; I’m kind of piecing a band together so it’s taking a little longer.”

He’s already recorded the vocals and guitar at Zen Studios, and is currently tracking the secondary parts from home, with select musician friends (including Rob Pastore and Chris Sgammato) sitting in on upright bass, violin, drums and even clarinet. If all goes well, he hopes to release the album sometime in May.

Dean Johanesen plays Singer-Songwriter Night @ The Bunker with J.W. Teller & Zach McCoy Thurs., Feb. 5, 7-10 p.m., Tre Amici @ The Bunker, Ybor City; Fri., Feb. 6, 6:30-9:30 p.m., at Mangia Gourmet, St. Petersburg; and Sat., Feb. 6, 4-6:30 p.m., Ale and the Witch, St. Petersburg. All are free, all-ages events. More info and show dates at deanjohanesen.com.

Dean Johanesen March Tour
Thurs., 3/12 - Panama City, FL - The Little Village
Fri., 3/13 - Ocean Springs, MS - Murky Waters BBQ
Sat., 3/14 - San Antonio, TX - Fralo’s Pizza
Sun., 3/15 - Houston, TX - Natachee’s 
Mon., 3/16 - Dallas, TX - Opening Bell Coffeehouse - In The Round
SXSW
Wed., 3/18 - Austin, TX - John Conquest - Ameilia’s 
Wed., 3/18 - Austin, TX - John Conquest - G&S music room 
Thurs., 3/19 - Austin, TX - John Conquest - G&S main Bar
Thurs., 3/19 - Austin, TX - John Conquest - Giddy Up’s
Fri., 3/20 - San Antonio, TX - Fralo’s -
Sat., 3/21 - Austin, TX - John Conquest - Giddy Ups
Sat., 3/21 - Austin, TX - John Conquest - G&S music room
Sun., 3/22 - Beaumont, TX - Victoria House
Tue., 3/24 - Shreeveport, LA - Rhino Coffee
Wed., 3/25 - Lake Charles, LA - Luna Bar & Grill
Thurs., 3/26 - Gainesville, FL - Satchel’s Pizza 
Fri.., 3/27 - Gainesville, FL - Satchel’s Pizza 


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