Jesse Johnson feels “strange” — his word — about performing at First Avenue on Friday night. He’s always felt that way about playing there — from his First Ave debut in 1981 with the Time to his latest gig there, in fall 2015, in D’Angelo’s band.
“It’s always felt strange. I always felt out of place there. Like I was in Prince’s living room,” Johnson said a few days ago. “I thought it would be different when I played there with D’Angelo, but it was the same feeling. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be exciting, scary, anxiety-laced.”
It was one of Prince’s former band members, drummer Michael Bland, who persuaded Johnson to become part of a power trio this weekend along with ex-Prince bassist Sonny Thompson, who had worked with Johnson years ago.
Said Bland, who’d never played with Johnson but admired his appearance on “Saturday Night Live” with D’Angelo in January 2015: “I thought to myself, ‘They’re hiding Jesse. He’s a star player.’ From that point, I think I was subconsciously waiting for the right reason for the three of us to work together.”
The repertoire will include songs associated with Johnson, the Time and Jimi Hendrix — as well as maybe a Prince tune or two that Johnson was doing before the Purple One died.
Johnson, 56, was crushed by Prince’s death. Friday’s performance will be Johnson’s first appearance since Prince’s passing in April. He said he turned down invitations to play the BET Awards tribute this summer and other salutes.
The guitarist considered Prince a close friend even though they didn’t talk much in recent years. Johnson, who is from Rock Island, Ill., always appreciates that Prince gave him his break by hiring him for the Time in 1981 shortly after he arrived in the Twin Cities.
Many observers of the Minnesota music scene thought Johnson, an accomplished guitarist, lived in Prince’s shadow because the Purple One became the more famous guitarist. Johnson didn’t feel that way about Prince.
“I’ll always be this blue-collar Midwestern kid who bought his first Stratocaster for $626.87 after pumping gas at Rock Island, Ill., before they had self-serve,” he said from his Los Angeles home. “You can call [Prince] a competitive person but I never looked at it like competition. I used to say to him, ‘Why you worry about me? You’re Prince. I’m nobody in the world that you’re in.’ ”
Anyhow, Johnson wasn’t one to fight. “I walk away from things rather than get into a brouhaha,” he said.
Sour on Time reunion
That’s sort of what happened with Johnson and the reunion of the Time as the Original 7ven from 2008-11. (Prince wouldn’t grant them permission to use “the Time,” a moniker he owned, so they coined a new one.) Johnson participated in the concerts and the recording of the 2011 comeback album “Condensate.”
However, at a hometown show at the State Theatre in 2011, Johnson, with his impassive face and body language, looked bored the entire night, even when he played some ferocious guitar (everything from Hendrix-ian rock to Buddy Guy-evoking blues to Princely funk).
“It was a disagreement on how things are done,” Johnson said of his dissatisfaction with the Original 7ven. “I love those guys to death. We’re brothers, family. I had real, real issues with the [album] production. I didn’t like a lot of the lyrics. It was that aging lothario thing. Do you keep doing the same thing over and over or do you try to birth something new? I’m about reaching, not about retreading.”
Johnson doesn’t sound bitter. Just resigned. In a freewheeling three-hour phone conversation recently, he seemed calm and accepting, lacking the chip on the shoulder he often exhibited when he lived in the Twin Cities from 1981 to 1996.
He tried to set the record straight on a few things. For instance, singer Morris Day left the Time first in 1984 to make a solo album so Johnson figured he shouldn’t stick around, either — even though Prince invited him to join a new band called the Family with Paul Peterson and Susannah Melvoin, among others.
Johnson, who co-wrote the Time’s big hits “The Bird” and “Jungle Love,” wasn’t overly excited about the Time reunion for Prince’s 1990 movie, “Graffiti Bridge,” which was something of a sequel to 1984’s hugely successful “Purple Rain.”
Johnson flashed back to the spring of 1983 when, at Prince’s house in Chanhassen, the budding star played the song that would become “Purple Rain.”
“I play chords completely differently. He plays guitar chords like he transposes them from the piano and they’ll be incorrect but they sometimes make his chords unique. I said ‘It’s cool, but it’s a Willie Nelson song.’ He said, ‘No, it’s not.’ ‘It’s from ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ soundtrack,’ I said. He thought it was more like a Journey song.”
Successful solo career
In the 1980s, Johnson had a modestly successful solo career, releasing three albums on A&M and enjoying a string of R&B hits including “Be Your Man,” “Can You Help Me” and “Crazay,” which featured Sly Stone.
He also toiled as a producer and songwriter with such acts as TaMara and the Seen, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and After 7. In recent years, Johnson says he’s worked with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and others without taking credit on the records, and he filled in for Stevie Wonder’s guitarist on tour one night.
Johnson played on D’Angelo’s acclaimed “Black Messiah” in 2014 and toured in the soul star’s band to promote the album. In 2009, Johnson self-released his first solo album in 14 years, “Verbal Penetration.”
But he never hyped the album during the long conversation. He preferred talking about Minnesota and the Midwest.
“Who I came to be happened in Minneapolis,” he said proudly, adding that he has two daughters living in the Twin Cities.
Sounding soft-spokenly modest, he marveled at his appearance in front of President Obama in 2012 in the house band for an all-star blues tribute in the PBS special “In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues.” The guest stars included B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Gary Clark Jr.
“At the first day of rehearsal in this hotel ballroom, I got my head down, I’m playing guitar, I’ve got a hat on. Then this hand goes underneath the hat and goes, ‘Hey, Jesse. I’m Mick.’ It was Mick Jagger, and I was speechless.”
The Midwestern guitarist sounded dumbfounded and flattered at the same time. At least he wasn’t feeling strange.