Robyn Alleman is to blame here. This is entirely her fault. The director of marketing and public relations at the Blueberry Patch, all-around band booster and now vocalist for Holey Miss Moley had been raving for more than a month about Justino and the Difference. Up to now, I simply had not been able to fit them into my dance card.
Finally, an early Wednesday show at the Patch, one of the grooviest places ever (if you’re laughing, then you haven’t been there yet), actually seemed like it would work out. Computer hassles at home got me there later than the 8 PM start time, but music had not started yet. The evening began on the best note possible, as Funky D was running sound! Funky D (Darryl Quesenberry) is the godfather of the music scene in St. Petersburg and beyond. Recent battles with illness and the hospital simply cannot deter this man.
Liza and Hal Bailstein, well known in the community for their Illumi-Nation Project and positive energy, were hosting their monthly “Paint at the Patch,” giving budding artists of all ages the opportunity to decorate a variety of canvases.
And the Patch was jammed for a Wednesday evening. Superb jazz guitarist LaRue Nickelson was in the house. The community had gathered in Gulfport to enjoy a great break in a nasty stretch of weather and to commune with friends, enjoy the painting, hoop, dance and hear some music. Some music?
On their Facebook page, Justino and the Difference describe their music as “Fusion, Experimental, Rock, Jazz, Prog, World.” I had plopped down next to Loie, and we were comparing notes: she knows them well; I was a virgin.
I’m given to superlatives and border occasionally on hyperbole. You’re aware. I’m aware. That being said, this was one of the most magnificent, remarkable, unexpectedly glorious shows I have ever attended. Ever. This was a stunning performance, start to finish. Robyn Alleman was oh, so very right.
Once Funky D got everything just so, the band launched immediately into a stunning fusion tune called “Came From Nowhere.” Everybody got an opportunity to shine. Justino is Justino Lee Walker, a guitarist of incredible ability; I had actually seen him play with The Juanjamon Band at the Great Outdoors Jam, and he was superb in that context, but on this night he was king, and he wore that crown with pride.
The majority of the set was instrumentals, but he has an amazing voice, and we heard it on the second tune, “Hold My Fire,” a beautiful tune by singer-songwriter David Ryan Harris. John Richardson is one of my very favorite keyboard players (Infinite Groove Orchestra), and Justino properly gave him lots of room to shine. On this song, the organ was a key element.
Next, he called a Porcupine Tree song. This is a band that had eluded me until recently (thanks for fixing that, Sulana). They crushed some great prog on “Blackest Eyes.”
And then… and then. “Stratus.” Billy Cobham tune (1973). So let me say that I am ancient enough to have seen Cobham with Jan Hammer and John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Cobham with George Duke, Alphonso Johnson and John Scofield in the Cobham-Duke Band. AND I’ve seen Gov’t Mule cover this song twice, brilliantly, once with Derek Trucks. I have context. This version was the real deal. I ran over to Funk D and said, “I’ve just time-travelled back 40 years,” to which he responded, “I KNOW!” Drummer Jonathan Thomas owned this, big-time. I could barely contain myself. For those who understand, I got up out of my chair!
Then Justino lowered the heat a bit with a tune titled “Somewhere.” In his introduction, he told us that the song was co-written with Matt Poynter from The Hip Abduction; they formerly played together in band called SoulCash. After Justino’s solo, he said, “Say hello to John,” and Richardson took a beautiful piano solo.
They followed that with a spot-on cover of “In the Kitchen“ by Umphrey’s McGee. Bassist Juan Santana helped propel this one; actually he and Thomas provided an incredible backbone throughout this amazing set. At some point, a Nirvana tease emerged (“Come As You Are?”). Then a really amusing take on the “Sanford and Son” theme began, briefly.
And then… again. This brilliant fusion tune roared out, so very danceable. And I couldn’t remember the name. I took a lap around the stage, racking my brain. And then the lyrics came to me: “Led Boots.” The original 1976 Jeff Beck version is instrumental, but there is a vocal version by Hummingbird, featuring Jeff Beck Group members Bobby Tench, Max Middleton and Clive Chaman (and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie); they called it “Got My ‘Led Boots’ On.” Richardson nearly broke his clavinet.
After a very short set break, we were back to business with… “Hoedown,” the Emerson, Lake and Palmer version!!! Santana and Thomas pushed the beat, and Richardson was front and center. So, obviously, you would follow that with Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” a great cover. The dance floor was full of happy singing faces.
Justino next announced a seldom-covered Stevie Wonder tune. Out flowed “Contusion,” the superb fusion tune from Stevie’s Songs In the Key of Life. I had just heard Kung Fu cover this several weeks ago, and the JATD version matched up perfectly. Richardson again. He really deserves this spotlight.
Justino again slowed the proceedings a bit with an original titled “The Ever Receding Hairline of Dunjavich Adams,” a very fusion-oriented ballad with a piano feature. I was so immersed in the music I had not realized we were approaching the 11 PM cut-off time for (amplified) music.
Nothing I could have imagined or done would have prepared me for what came next. Justino grabbed an acoustic guitar and sat on a stool, and… seriously, I am getting goosebumps just writing about this.
“Spain.” Are you kidding me? “SPAIN!” Again, I saw Chick and Al and Return to Forever do this several times in 1975 and on several reunion tours. This just blew my mind. Tears were streaming down my face. It was so glorious. Santana and Thomas had the perfect syncopated rhythm down, while Justino’s guitar and Richardson’s keyboards danced to and fro. Robyn and I were standing “on the rail” (well, there’s no ‘rail,’ but you know what I mean), and I must have thanked her 1000 times.
Told they had time for one more tune before curfew, the band ripped off a quick medley/mashup of Allen Stone’s “Unaware” into two originals, “Pop Song > Signals.” There was at least one false ending before they came roaring back, blazing until the very last chord.
The Patch went wild, deservedly so. It was a spectacular performance. The wonderful drum circle that followed just brought everything… full circle.
I was floored to hear Justino tell us afterward that this band has only been together six months. And Richardson assured me that this is just the beginning. Then he and Justino started talking about maybe scheduling a show with Serotonic and Infinite Groove Orchestra, at which point my head nearly exploded imagining the possibilities.
All the members decried the necessity of playing in cover bands and were so appreciative of the warm crowd response to “real music.” Santana was glowing with pride, as well he should. And then, because the world is really very small, drummer Thomas and I were trying to figure out how we knew each other previously. He graduated with my daughter from the high school where I taught at the time. Six degrees indeed.
The band is awesome, and I’ll match Justino’s guitar with anybody you want to name. I was truly knocked out.
There are all sorts of musical communities. Some you may have read about recently in very disparaging ways. This particular musical family — Blueberry Patch, Tampa area, Florida, jam community — is the solution, not the problem. I take great pride in counting myself among its members.
Remember this name: Justino and the Difference. This is as good as it gets.
Justino plays on Sunday nights at Ruby’s Elixir in St. Petersburg with Juanjamon at the Pro Jam.
Justino and the Difference have upcoming shows at Ruby’s Elixir (July 31) and Mandarin Hide (August 9), also in St. Petersburg. See the Facebook page for more dates.
And Justino and the Difference are part of the all-day Keepin’ D Funky at the Amsterdam benefit on August 29th (and great thanks to the Amsterdam folks for making this happen).
[SET ONE: Came From Nowhere, Hold My Fire, Blackest Eyes, Stratus, Somewhere, In The Kitchen, Sanford and Son Theme > Led Boots; SET TWO: Hoedown, Black Hole Sun, Contusion, The Ever Receding Hairline of Dunjavich Adams, Spain, Unaware > Pop Song > Signals]
Photos courtesy of Matt Hillman!