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In a good place

Now sober, F. Alex Johnson has more music to make with Colorway

You’re about to meet me again/For the first time/And the last time I can hardly wait to begin/At the ending,” sings F. Alex Johnson on “I’m Still Running,” a hard-rocking tune that opens the debut album from his new band Colorway. The song features an ear-grabbing chorus and some of Johnson’s amazing guitar work, but it is lyrics like “I made it out with my life/the lucky man who played with fire,” which allude to his years of drug and alcohol abuse, that serve as the launching pad for the entire disc.

Johnson, who lives in Northampton, was the guitarist for the roots-rock band The Drunk Stuntmen for 15 years. He left the Stuntmen in 2008. That decision followed a number of major life changes, including the deaths of his mother and aunt. But perhaps the greatest change occurred on Dec. 27, 2008, when a DUI arrest forced him to take a hard look at his life and come to terms with years of substance abuse.

“I was lucky enough that fate, the law, my bod, it all, said ‘stop’ and I listened,” he said in recent interview at a Northampton cafe. “So when I say you meet me again for the first time it’s as this new person. I stopped everything that Dec. 27th, and it took a long time to get to the point that I felt real again. But now I’m living this new person’s life and I don’t want this person to go anywhere, because I like him and it’s taken a long time for me to like me.”

Five years into his sobriety, Johnson is in a good place, both personally and professionally, and he is more than ready to begin the next phase of his musical life with Colorway.

In addition to Johnson, Colorway includes seasoned valley musicians drummer J.J. O’Connell and bassist Dave Hayes. The trio will make its debut and celebrate the release of the new album with a show at the Iron Horse Music Hall on Saturday, June 29, at 10 p.m. Dave Houghton of Fancy Trash will open.

While this is Johnson’s first recording in five years, he has not been idle by any means. He has been writing, including a personal blog at www.fearlessbydefault.blogspot.com, and has been playing guitar and traveling the globe with the Young at Heart Chorus since 2004.

Johnson started playing violin at the age of 5 and picked up guitar at 10. Music has always been the centerpiece of his life, but there was a period toward the end of his substance abuse when that wasn’t the case.

“Music just didn’t hold the pleasure that it used to and that was why I knew it was time to do something, because a life without music isn’t worth living,” he said. “I slowly but surely regained my love of music to the point where I could create in my own voice and bring it full circle, where I could go into a recording studio and put it all on a CD and let the world say ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’”

When songs started coming to him in his dreams, it not only set him on a writing frenzy but also got him thinking that it was time to do a record. Once he made the decision, the project quickly came together.

“It was done fast, but I have a great band and what helped is that J.J. and Dave are such quick studies,” said Johnson. “Even though I wrote all the songs, they helped arrange some things and they both sing.”

Superb production and playing, memorable tunes and honest lyrics about love, loss, hope and desperation make “Colorway” a debut listeners won’t soon forget. Johnson calls it a rock album and said that the disc will appeal to listeners who enjoy Richard Thompson, Wilco and The Black Crowes. And while the disc does indeed rock and features his excellent expressive guitar work, there are some decidedly nonrock moments here, including the acoustic instrumental “For the Birds” and the lighthearted pop of “Live with Me.” The song Johnson said he is most proud of is “A Temporary Occupation,” a 7½-minute tune that closes the disc. A beautiful sweeping song that features strings (impeccably arranged by Dave Trenholm), it builds up to Johnson singing “I wish it wasn’t over/ I had so much more to explain.” It is a truly standout track in a strong collection of songs.

“That song is kind of me telling you I have more to say, but I have to stop here,” he said.

“I feel that it sums up the record. It ends the conversation the best way I could imagine.”

The Iron Horse show not only marks the debut of the album, it is also the debut of the band, whose only previous appearance was at a local Robyn Hitchcock tribute show. This will be Colorway’s only show of the summer.

Johnson said he looks forward to the show and said it feels good to be performing with a clear head.

“It’s easier to get on stage now, but it’s still scary because there are millions of things that can go wrong. But now I know that I won’t make a mistake or forget the words because I am not in a state that I shouldn’t be in.”

Johnson admitted that releasing an album is a scary prospect, but he is pleased with “Colorway” and hopes that listeners will find it worthy of their time.

“I had stopped creating and enjoying music because I felt there was no more music for me to make,” he recalled. “But finally I feel there is more music for me to make and I want to do as much as I can with this music and this record. “


Tickets are $10 in advance and $13 at the door. Advance tickets are available at www.iheg.com, charge by phone at 413-586-8686 or at the Northampton Box Office on 76 Main St. The CD is available at iTunes and Turn it Up! on Pleasant St. in Northampton.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com

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