The invisible man 

Out of the shadows with John Floridis

John Floridis should have no problem coming up with a Halloween costume this year. The 41-year-old guitar player and music maven has a great jump on a standard vampire getup, as four of the fingers on his string-picking right hand are capped by accessory nails that would make Tammy Faye Baker drool with envy (the fifth finger, his pinkie, is basically expendable).

Or he could appear as any one of his self-described personas, like “solo boy” (him, guitar, stage), “acoustic boy” (a more detailed variation of solo boy), or “opening boy” (again, a small tweak on solo boy, this time as a predecessor to somebody famous—or at least, more famous than he, which, we will discover, encompasses most of the musical world).

Or he could dress up as a promoter, producer, manager or agent, all roles he has played at various times—as co-producer of “Musician’s Spotlight” on KUFM radio and through long ties with the Missoula Folklore Society—in support of his playing career since moving here from Cleveland in 1993.

But perhaps the most clever costume Floridis could don on ghoul’s night would be that of the Invisible Man. For despite Floridis’ undeniable talent—a listen to his just-released fourth album, In This Place, reveals a jaw-dropping assortment of mostly original songs—he is a relatively unknown commodity, even around the town he’s called home for the last decade.

Witness these opening lines from Floridis concert reviews: “How on earth does a guitarist as incredible as John Floridis end up playing to only a dozen or so folks?” (Billings Outpost); “Why is it that some of our best talent has to leave town before we ever realize it was here in the first place?…his performance lasted barely an hour—for an embarrassingly thin crowd of less than 25—but spanned a wide musical spectrum and showcased a boatload of instrumental and vocal talent” (Cleveland Times).

Witness, too, the fact that despite having attended local concerts and listened to many a local CD over the years, I had never once heard John Floridis perform, on stage or on record. Until I hit play on In This Place, that is, at which point I wondered how in God’s name I’d missed the boat for a freakin’ decade. This guy can flat-out play the guitar. And sing. And write. Look up “the complete package” in the proverbial dictionary, and Floridis should be staring up from the page.

“I feel that the more I do this, the further away I get from it bothering me,” says Floridis of his relative obscurity. “Even a few years ago, it was something that irritated me a bit more. But you know, it’s like what Tom Webster [director of UM’s University Theatre] told me: There’s worse things to be doing than making a living as a musician.”

One possible explanation for Floridis’ low profile may be a self-imposed limitation on the venues he plays. An avid biker, Floridis has a real aversion to cigarette smoke, and as a result has not played in local bars for some time. “For a lot of people, if you don’t play the clubs, you just don’t get that exposure,” he says. Besides a semi-regular solo gig at Shadows Keep and a perennial involvement as a headliner in Missoula’s First Night festivities, Floridis concentrates on playing at regional colleges, a generally well-paid circuit that, along with private lessons and his promoting and producing jobs, allows him to make a living from his passion.

That passion bleeds profusely from the soundscape of In This Place, from the opening “Late May Moon,” a slide-guitar-driven groover that introduces Floridis’ newest rhythm section—Seattle musicians Brian Oppel on percussion and Clipper Anderson on stand-up bass—with a bang, to a sweet, spare treatment of Ben Harper’s “Waiting on an Angel,” the album’s closer.

Though he uses an electric guitar as an accent on the album, Floridis is first and foremost an acoustic guitar player. But don’t count Floridis among those who feel an acoustic sound should be delicate or kid-gloved; his transformation from electric to acoustic was spurred by the guitar-abusing immensity of Michael Hedges’ sound.

“That’s where I got the idea of one guy and an acoustic guitar that sounds huge,” he says. “I’m not looking for a quiet sound, I want something with a huge sound to it. Then you can bring it down and be dynamic with it, but you still have that big sound, like a rock concert.”

“Nature’s Way,” a provocative cut that progresses lyrically from a possible call to eco-terrorist arms to a questioning of the side effects of passion’s power, is a fine example of the scale of Floridis’ guitar sound. Over a chunky bass line and a loping drumbeat, Floridis mixes delicate mandolin chords with blistering acoustic leads, both naked and filtered through a wah-wah pedal. It’s as if Floridis has fed his Taylor acoustic with a steady diet of steroids.

Floridis recorded the vocals and his instruments on In This Place at home, in a garage-turned-studio. He then packed up his hard-drive recorder and traveled to Seattle, where he recorded the bass and drum parts in Oppel’s basement. Despite the disjointed assemblage, the record sounds seamless, a tribute to Floridis’ engineering skill.

“There are great advantages to recording at home,” he says. “A lot of it was recorded later in the evening, when not being on a clock is huge. The only downside, besides being the engineer and producer, is making sure the dogs stay quiet and no planes are flying overhead.”

A wind chime that found its way on to the album was left there by Floridis, who recognizes the value of “a little sand in the Vaseline.” Hmmm, yet another idea for a Halloween costume.

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