Jerry Lee Lewis worshiper (who claims to have blown his hero off the stage on a good night!) and certified lunatic of the geetar, Evan Johns personified the most incendiary and rebellious elements of rock’n’roll. A teenaged Virginia hellion who apprenticed in the DC bar circuit under the legendary Danny Gatton, Johns formed the H-Bombs in 1979 and made the reelin’ rockabilly 10-inch Giddy Up Girl in 1980. The four songs are roughly recorded, but blueprint the searing six-string mayhem that marked Johns’ best work.
It wasn’t until a move to Austin, a stint with the LeRoi Brothers and a Grammy nomination for his featured participation in the Big Guitars From Texas Trash Twang and Thunder compilation LP that Johns’s name began to spread across the land he’d already criss-crossed time and time again. Rollin’ Through the Night, a 1982 session unreleased until Jello Biafra came across it four years later, is the pinnacle by which Johns — and any other purveyors of roots-surf-guitar-billy-boogie — must forever be measured. With second guitarist Pedro Sera-Leyva’s taut speed runs setting the pace, EJ provides fireworks galore on cuts like “Madhouse,” “Sugar Cookie” and “Do the Dootz.” Put this album on a 90-minute cassette with The Best of ZZ Top and drive till you die happy. The ’92 CD reissue (in which Alternative Tentacles owner Biafra credits a “record reviewer from Trouser Press magazine” for introducing him to Johns’s work) adds three previously unreleased cuts.
Released the same year, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs gathers three years of scattered sessions for a predictably less-focused set, highlighting Johns’s love of Tex-Mex, blues and country, as well as head-stompin’ rock.
The H-Bombs backed Eugene Chadbourne on the berserk, twisted Vermin of the Blues before making the relatively polished and consistently superb Bombs Away. Producer (and Springsteen sideman) Gary Tallent manages to squeeze the band into a clear, vibrant framework without obliterating the trademark hog-wild spirit of Johns’s best outings. The seasonal and primarily instrumental Please Mr. Santa Claus is a holiday postcard that features a polka, the fiddle-fueled “Little Cajun Drummer Boy,” a raging “Telstar” and plenty of free-style pickin’ throughout.
Rockit Fuel Only!, while allowing for the broad stylistic whims of its creator (like a surprising compassionate piano ballad, “Prove It to Each Other”), also rocks harder than anything since Rollin’ Through the Night. “Juvenile Delinquent,” “Boogie Disease” and “Little Scene Setter” are among the rip-it-up corkers that keep Evan Johns among rock’n’roll’s guitar elite.
Johns moved to Vancouver in 2002 and revved it up again, launching the Jellyroll label and putting his music back on the market. In addition to a number of CD-R EJ homebrews, the imprint’s first commercial release, Showdown at the Hoedown, documents a scalding 1984 date with Gatton. (Great sleeve note: “…the newest instrument on stage was a 64 Stratocaster.”) The sound is for shit, but the playing is absolutely frantic, as if their van was double-parked in front of a police station. Speed, enthusiasm and ferocious rock determination fuel this platter, which contains a lot of the essential Johns canon, like “Madhouse,” “Sugar Cookie,” “Giddy Up Girl,” “Rollin’ Thru the Night” and “Do the Dootz.” The gentle Johns instrumental track tacked on as a bonus is a bit of a moodbreaker, but affords proof that he’s still at it, albeit in a far more sedate vein.
Johns died in 2017.