September 24, 2018

Jonny Kaplan: Count your ‘Lazy Stars’

It was a full-moon-illuminated night in September, and several hundred 30- and 40-somethings circulated through Fonogenic Studios, the Van Nuys recording facility co-owned by Rami Jaffee, a keyboardist who was a founding member of the Wallflowers and has played extensively with Foo Fighters. 

On stage, a tall, lean fellow, sans shoes and with long sandy-brown hair, blazed through one of his blues-marinated originals, “Annalee Meets the Scorpion,” with bassist Brad Smith (a founding member of Blind Melon) and Jaffee on piano. After Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett’s scorching set with his sideband, the Dead Peasants, attendees were on overdrive, rocking out to the barefoot guy in the headband, whose vocals soared like a murder of crows released above the crowd.

The singer on stage was Jonny Kaplan, and this private party’s raison d’etre was the release of “Sparkle and Shine” by Jonny Kaplan and the Lazy Stars, recorded at Fonogenic. The country-tinged rockers play again Oct. 29 at 10:30 p.m. at Piano Bar in Hollywood.

The band’s fourth album features Jaffee, along with actress-girlfriend Daryl Hannah, who sings on two tracks, and former Pearl Jam drummer Dave Krusen. Indeed, the list of contributors to the Lazy Stars’ newest album reads like an alternative super-group, including Jessy Greene (strings), who has performed with Wilco, Foo Fighters and Pink; keyboardist Adam MacDougall, who joined the Black Crowes in 2007; and others. 

“Luckily for me, these folks are my friends, and they like and respect my music,” Kaplan said.

While not a household name, Kaplan, who can handle guitar, harmonica and vocals, has a storied career anyone would envy. He’s jammed with Keith Richards, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, the Wallflowers and Kings of Leon.

“Jonny is my favorite kind of musician,” Krusen said. “He has a lot of experience playing in different situations, yet is a very humble and supportive person.” 

Since 1997’s “California Heart” album — which was named “Americana Album of the Month” by British music magazine MOJO — Kaplan has cultivated a following abroad. 

“That really got the ball rolling for me in Europe,” he said.

That’s when the fun started for Jaffee.

“Jonny began playing shows in Spain and Italy,” Jaffee told the Journal. “His following began to grow almost immediately over there. That’s why I became a Lazy Star. He asked me to play with him on a mini-tour in Spain, and it was the most fun I’d had in a long time.”

As with Jaffee, Kaplan’s Jewishness has always kept him company. Originally from Philadelphia, Kaplan explains he “grew up around all of these … Eastern European immigrants who all had numbers tattooed on their arms. I have heard all of the horror stories firsthand from my grandparents.

“My mother’s side of the family are all Holocaust survivors,” Kaplan said. “In fact, my mother was born in Auschwitz, and she [was hidden] from the Nazis as an infant, so I am lucky to be here at all.

“I am very proud of my people and my heritage,” the Marina del Rey resident said, “although I and my family are not very religious. I actually visited Auschwitz while on tour a few years ago. Seeing that place in living color, knowing my mother was born there, was a very heavy thing. There is an incredible feeling of sadness there that is hard to shake.”

For Kaplan, “Sparkle” represents an unprecedented maturity and ferocity. 

“There is a level of sophistication on this one that I haven’t reached before in terms of songwriting and diversity,” Kaplan said. 

“As with everything else, evolution and maturity comes from experience … life experience. I was involved in a very bad motorcycle accident a few years ago, which left me in pain and healing for four months. It was then that I started writing the songs for ‘Sparkle and Shine,’ ” he said.

Jaffee’s gold- and platinum-record signature Hammond organ sounds are showcased on such cuts as “Garage Cleaner,” on which Kaplan and Dan Wistrom provide slide guitars. Echoes of the Gram Parsons-led Byrds can be heard on “I’ll Be Around” and “The Child Is Gone.” The catchy title track combines the upbeat bar-band ethos of early Wilco albums and Bruce Springsteen, circa 1980’s “The River,” with ’80s pop-rock touches of Rick Springfield or Billy Squier. Kaplan closes with the acoustic-dominated “Pretty Little Nose.” 

Despite comparisons to alt-country rock pioneer Parsons, a big influence on Kaplan, it’s his own compositions with which he hopes to sparkle and shine — this time in the United States.

“I want a proper career — writing, recording and touring here at home,” he said. “ ‘Sparkle and Shine’ is now up for Grammy consideration for Best Americana Album. I would most certainly like to win!”