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VALLEY WEEKEND | ROCKTALK

They May Be Green, but They Know Blues

Taryn Lynn Donath, 15, is among the youths who recently have been surprising the old guard with their skill in the genre.

August 08, 1996|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Friday's lineup at Smokin' Johnnie's of 15-year-old blues pianist Taryn Lynn Donath and veteran blues man Johnny Dyer will offer a little something for everyone: someone old, someone new, something borrowed and something blue.

Donath is the latest in a recent series of blues wunderkinds that includes 11-year-old harmonica player Brody Buster and 16-year-old guitarist Mike Welch. All are white youngsters who perform the blues with skills seemingly beyond their years.

Dyer, who is Donath's mentor and has been around long enough to know talent when he sees it, says he's shocked by the quality playing of some of these young people.

"It amazes me--it amazes me to death," he says.

Donath, fresh from the Kansas City Jazz and Blues Festival, where she got to sit in with Al Green's band, started playing classical piano when she was 6.

"By the time I was 11, I was listening to the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton," Donath says. And soon the type of music being played around the house changed.

"I really didn't know she knew how to play that kind of music," says Taryn's mother, Sharon Donath. "Classical music was not an emotional kind of music for her, but she really pours herself into this."

Taryn started sitting in with bands in her hometown of Carlsbad when she was 12. Word of her ability spread and Taryn soon performed with a variety of blues artists, including Dyer, Paul Bryant, Arthur Adams and Walter Trout.

She's also scheduled to perform in the upcoming King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Ark., and there's talk of a European tour.

"I try to be supportive, but I don't want to put a lot of pressure on her," says her mother. "I'm just supporting what she wants to do."

Despite her performance schedule, Taryn sounds pretty much like a normal teenager, excited about normal teenager-type things, such as starting high school and a new boyfriend.

"My mother always asks me, 'Is this too much pressure?' and I say, 'Nah,' " she says. "I don't work that hard. I hate to practice--I don't spend 12 hours a day at the piano like some people do. . . . But I love to play. And my parents say, as long as I can get up in the morning to go to school, I can do it."

* Taryn Lynn Donath and Johnny Dyer play Friday night at Smokin' Johnnie's, 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. No cover. Call (818) 760-6631.

*

Rock Hunt: Surprisingly, the crowd was thin for the "Rock Hunt" at Mancini's last week. Too bad. The hunting was good: four fine bands and a wisp of a girl singer with star potential.

The event featured three local L.A. bands in competition--Swamp Boogie Queen, Hair of the Dog and Native Tongue--plus the Boston-area band Hank. The winner, Swamp Boogie Queen featuring lead singer Abigail Lenz, now becomes a semifinalist in a national band competition sponsored by Jagermeister, the maker of the liqueur of the same name.

Hank's promotional setup with Jagermeister is the kind of thing that most bands dream about. The corporate people put up some bucks, T-shirts, trinkets, the Jagermeister girls and whatever else to promote the band--and their liqueur--at clubs across the country.

Of course, Jagermeister needs all the promotion it can get. It's nasty stuff. A label on the bottle reads "Serve Cold." It doesn't help. The stuff still tastes like cough syrup. (Given a choice, I'd rather drink Nyquil.)

The L.A. bands all did well. Hair of the Dog was the tightest, best-rehearsed band of the evening. Their songs had the most pop sensibility--in other words, you could tap your foot or hum the melody. Native Tongue, however, sounded much different live. On tape I heard more of a Southern hard-rock sound, a '90s, harder-edge version of the Allman Brothers Band. Live, they sounded more like they were from Seattle than Muscle Shoals, Ala. Then again, maybe it was the Nyquil.

But Swamp Boogie Queen prevailed this night.

The 3-year-old band has played the House of Blues and will again. They're working with famed producer Phil Ramone, who has worked with Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, the Brian Setzer Orchestra and others on his way to eight Grammys. The band also has high-powered representation in William Morris, though no record contract yet.

Lead singer Lenz says the band, which also includes Michael Bedik, Michael Todd Bishop, Dave Bell and Mark Williamson, is like a family. "This band will be together for 30 years," she predicts.

Live performance is a funny thing. Some very talented people get unconquerable stage fright. Others, through time and sheer determination, eventually become comfortable on stage. And then there are people like Lenz, who seem to be at their most natural when the spotlight is on them.

"I feel more comfortable on stage then when I am walking down the street," says Lenz, who comes from a show-business family. Her grandfather was actor Claude Rains.

She looks totally relaxed and at ease. Moving her body effortlessly to the music, she seems utterly herself on stage, with no pretension or affectation. She's a natural. Maybe it was the Nyquil--but I don't think so.

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