×

Streaking back for a reunion: Valley rockers Blue Streak to play first public gig in a decade

  • John Sheldon, at right, with members of his band Blue Streak, circa late 1990s. Sheldon says bringing the group together for a reunion show recalls “all of those nights in clubs all over New England, of sound and sweat and happy mayhem.” Photo by Ellen Augarten/courtesy John Sheldon

  • Sheldon has always made the 12-string acoustic guitar an important part of his live shows and his albums. Photo by Jeff Skerrik/courtesy John Sheldon

  • Sheldon with Blue Streak’s saxophone player, Joe Nerney at Greenfield’s Hawks & Reeds Performing Arts Center (then called the Arts Block) circa 2008-2009.  Photo by Jeff Skerrik/courtesy John Sheldon

  • Sheldon plays at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2018 as part of the Valley improv group Do It Now, which includes percussionist Tony Vacca and beat poet Paul Richmond. Gazette file photo

  • Sheldon’s fingerstyle playing on electric guitar is a key part of Blue Streak’s sound. Gazette file photo

  • Blue Steak’s 1998 live album, “Play Out,” showcases the bands’ groove-oriented approach to blues and rock. Blue Steak’s 1998 live album, “Play Out,” showcases the bands’ groove-oriented approach to blues and rock.



Staff Writer
Friday, January 17, 2020

Back in 1992, John Sheldon hauled a bunch of recording equipment into a barn behind his Leverett home and, with bassist John McClellan and drummer Dale Monette, set about making the debut album for his newly christened band, Blue Streak. The album’s opening cut, also called “Blue Streak,” was a sizzling rocker that basically served as a declaration of the band’s mission: As one line put it, the goal was to play music that would “flash on by like a blue streak.”

“Blue Streak was born with the idea of me writing songs that people would want to dance to,” Sheldon, who now lives in Amherst, said during a recent phone call from his home. “I wanted to play original music, songs with a lot of energy that would be fun and get people moving.”

Juiced along by Sheldon’s fluid leads on electric guitar and his 12-string acoustic, Blue Streak’s music did just that. The band became a regular draw in the Valley and on the regional music circuit, playing gigs throughout New England, and sometimes a little further, from the early 1990s into the first decade of the new millennium.

For a variety of reasons, including Sheldon’s increased focus on solo guitar projects, Blue Streak pretty much called it quits about 10 years ago. But on Jan. 25, the band will regroup for a reunion show at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, with its key lineup, from the mid 1990s, back in place: Sheldon on guitar and vocals, Bruce Dobbins on percussion, Peter Kim on bass, John Kokoszyna on drums and Joe Nerney on saxophone, harmonica and recorder.

Sheldon, whose own music career dates back to the late 1960s, when he played lead guitar for a stretch at age 17 for Van Morrison, says Blue Streak reformed for a private gig last spring “and we all had a really good time. We sounded good and we thought ‘Hey, it would be fun to do this again.’” Sometime later, he notes, Hawks & Reed approached him about doing a reunion show “so now we’ll be doing our first public gig since 2009.”

It’s not as though the musicians haven’t been on the scene in other ways. Kim and Kokoszyna, for example, have played with a number of other bands over the years, and Sheldon says he’s worked with Kim on other projects and played as part of a rock trio with Kokoszyna and bassist Chetz Keegan. But as in a lot of Valley bands, the members of Blue Streak had other commitments and time constraints that made playing regularly a challenge.

“A lot of that was me getting more involved in solo work,” said Sheldon, a childhood friend of James Taylor. Taylor recorded two of Sheldon’s songs, “September Grass” and “Bittersweet,” on two albums he released in the early 2000s. In addition to recording a number of solo records in that decade, including an instrumental guitar album, Sheldon in the last several years has also composed music for some theatrical productions.

One of those projects was his own: “The Red Guitar,” a performance piece — part music, part comedy monologue, part memoir — that traces his beginnings as a guitarist and his memories of growing up in the tumultuous 1960s. Working with the Valley theatrical ensemble Serious Play to develop the piece, he took “The Red Guitar” to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2016 and 2017.

It’s only rock and roll but I like it

But Sheldon says he’s never lost his love of rock and blues, which was the bread and butter of Blue Streak’s sound. “That was the music I first learned to play, the stuff that really moved me to pick up the guitar.”

Earlier in his career, he also played guitar for and toured with Taylor and with Linda Ronstadt, and he was a member of the Sixties’ psychedelic jazz rock band The Bead Game, whose drummer, Jim Hodder, later became the first drummer for Steely Dan.

Sheldon brought some of that background to his first Blue Streak album, which featured original melodic rockers that melded a propulsive beat, inventive electric guitar leads and fills, and a rich 12-string acoustic sound. (He also offered some sparkling leads on the 12-string — not an easy instrument to play — on songs like “Runaway Train.”) Lyrically, songs like “Midnight on the River” and “Hell House Moon” examined themes such as the mysteries of nature and the passage of time.

Valley fans have long gravitated to his fretwork. Unlike most electric guitarists, Sheldon plays entirely fingerstyle — he uses a thumb pick on many songs — which lets him move easily from single- and double-note leads to plucked chords. It’s a style that’s at once fluid and technically stunning, yet which never seems overdone even as his hands fly up and down the neck of the guitar.

“Boneyard,” the second Blue Streak album, expanded on the first one by adding saxophone, slide guitar and percussion on some tracks. Taylor also sang a duet with Sheldon on the rocker “Little Things,” and several of the songs explored Sheldon’s desire to play his music on his own terms. He says the Hawks & Reed show will include cuts from both these albums, such as “Rattlesnake,” a Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar instrumental.

“We’ll also do things like ‘Little Things’ and ‘Blue Highway,’” said Sheldon (the latter is a song about driving the backroads of New England to the small clubs he’s played over the years).

He notes that the lineup for Blue Streak really came into its own on the band’s 1998 live album, “Play Out,” recorded at a party the group played in Leyden. It’s a grove-oriented disc, with a bit of jazz and Latin flavor as well as blues and rock, that gives different members, like sax player Joe Nerney, plenty of opportunities to solo. “We’ll definitely be drawing a bunch of material from that album” for the Greenfield show, Sheldon said.

In fact, the band grew adept at simply improvising at live shows, he says, sometimes with ideas he’d just spring on them. Once, driving to a gig at the Charlemont Inn, he passed a line of sandbags along a stretch of road in the aftermath of heavy flooding.

“So I just started composing this song called ‘Sandbagging’ on my way there,” said Sheldon, “and when I got on stage I said [to the band], ‘Here’s the groove, let’s just build on it.’”

He says the band would always look for different ways to play its songs, varying them from gig to gig. “You start by trying to build a structure, and when that structure starts to emerge, that’s what’s really interesting.”

Sheldon doesn’t know if Blue Streak will be doing additional public shows this year — the band does have at least one other private gig lined up this winter — but he’s open to the possibility. “We’re looking forward to getting back together in Greenfield and hopefully getting people dancing,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Blue Streak plays a reunion show at Hawks & Reed on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m.; doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $20 and can be purchased at hawksandreed.ticketfly.com.