By George Halas
It is a blessing that the Fox Cities area has its fair share of nice restaurants and clubs where one can partake in fine wine and good food, and it’s often difficult to pick that one place to go.
Knowledgeable FCI’s (Fox Cities Inquisitors) would say the choice is simple: go to the place that is featuring Erin Krebs and Jeff Johnston. Their very classy, engaging, eminently listenable acoustic jazz-blues always make the food and the wine taste much better. The music complements the evening much in the same way that their incredible talents flow together.
Johnston is most familiar to Fox Cities music aficionados as leader of The Swinging Johnsons, a highly regarded blues-rock band. Over the years, he has also hosted open mic nights at places like The St. James, Jack’s Apple Pub and The Wooden Nickel. It’s also possible he’s fixed your guitar.
Krebs is an emerging star who captivates audiences from her opening note. She has the range and the chops to gently coax the nuance out of a ballad as well as the power to shatter glass when she chooses to pursue a high note.
The Jazz Orgy plays an on-going role in this story…
JO drummer Michael Underwood has had the opportunity to place with Krebs and Johnston, both individually and together.
“I played my first jazz concert in college (UW-Oshkosh) with Erin singing ‘Moonlight in Vermont,” Underwood said, “and she was good.
“But now, I wouldn’t recognize that singer,” he continued. “She is now this force, this blues goddess. She is hands down one of my favorite singers, ever.
“When I’m playing with her, it’s hard not to stop playing and just listen.
“Jeff is probably the most melodic guitar player around,” Underwood said. “There is something special about his playing. You know it’s going to be good and you know it’s going to be there.
“His ideas are unbelievable,” Underwood added. “He can play loud and forceful but in a very relaxed kinda way. He’s so good it’s inexplicable.”
In addition to The Jazz Orgy, Underwood plays with Greg Waters and The Broad Street Boogie as well as Sly Joe and The Smooth Operators. He averages over 300 gigs a year.
“If I have a night off, I typically do not go out to listen to music,” he said. “But if I know that Erin and Jeff are playing somewhere, I will go out to listen to them.
“They’ve got an awesome selection of songs, a good mix of jazz and blues,” he continued. “You can actually see the crowd go from bored to excited––and they keep them all night!
“It’s about time that they got some recognition,” he added, “because they are two of the coolest people I know.”
Both Michael Underwood and The Inquisition have enormous credibility, but Janet Planet is the gold standard when it comes to jazz and blues vocals.
“I was gigging with John Harmon when I first heard of Erin and her natural talent. The buzz was ‘there is a new and powerful voice in town’ and John concurred,” Planet said. “I first heard Erin’s voice at a nightclub in Menasha and indeed her power carried over the din of the conversations between the patrons.
“Erin has a presence. Not only in her singing voice but in the light that she emits every time she walks in to a room,” Planet continued. “A trencher like the rest of us, Erin understands the dedication it takes to become a better musician and a smarter singer with every note, every year. Welcome to the club, Erin!”
Interestingly enough, this column could have been about…a bassoon player…
“I went to UW-O for music ed in 1998, wanting to be a band director,” Krebs said. “My primary instrument going in was flute, but since Dr. Grine is such a great teacher, there were lots of flute majors, and I ended up playing bassoon in band/orchestra throughout. For a while I was really into playing bassoon.
“Then one day,” she continued, “I saw a poster that the Jazz Ensemble was looking for vocalists to audition to sing a tune with them on an upcoming concert. I auditioned and won (no one else auditioned that time though). When I got on stage to sing the tune (“Moonlight in Vermont”) the hall was full, and I wasn’t nervous at all. I had always struggled with major performance anxiety when playing flute or bassoon. I noticed that singing seemed to come more natural to me than playing an instrument.
“When I turned 21, I went to Peabody’s for The Jazz Orgy every Sunday and would get to sit in here and there. The feedback was good and I loved singing,” she said. But, even while I was doing all of this I still thought of myself as a teacher, and wanted to be a band teacher, so I finished my degree in 2003. My first gig where I had to put a band together and sing the whole gig was in early 2006, so I would say 2006-2007 were the years when I decided I should make singing a part of my musical career.”
While The Inquisition has never seen her with a bassoon, she is still involved in teaching.
“Right now, I’m at Wisconsin International School in DePere where I teach K-8 General Music part-time,” she said. “I also give private lessons outside of school on a variety of instruments and voice. Teaching music is so fun! I love starting students on instruments. I also love how a classroom of kids will come to music all quiet and maybe tired out from working their brains all day, then leave music class singing, smiling, and skipping around. Kids love music, and it helps feed my love for music too!”
The guitar was not Johnston’s first instrument…
“I started playing ukelele when I was 12 when we were living in Hawaii,” he said. “I switched to guitar a year later. We were living in Appleton by then and I had a few lessons at The Music Center in town. After a few lessons I just started teaching myself, learning from records. My dad was a jazz drummer and encouraged me to play music. “
The Jazz Orgy was previously mentioned…
“I met Erin at PCP (Paper City Pub, Neenah) during a Jazz Orgy on a Monday night about eight years ago,” Johnston said. “That was the first time I heard her sing and I was really impressed. She started sitting in with the Swingin’ Johnsons, and I kinda liked her…Erin was (and still is) a big hit with the band and the fans.”
Their stories seem to synch up…
“I met Jeff at a Jazz Orgy almost eight years ago. I was singing with the band and we were going to do a bluesy tune. Mike Underwood said, ‘We should get Jeff up here for this one. I was like, ‘Who’s Jeff?’
“Jeff came up and we played the tune,” she continued. “Jeff took a solo and I was amazed by the way he played. When I came back in after the solo, something was different about the way I sang right away. Jeff plays guitar with so much soul––and he makes it look so easy––don’t know how he does it.”
“I thought we should try something as a duo. We got a few tunes together and it just took off. I love the duo because we do a fun mix of stuff. We do standards, but with Jeff’s blues chops we can do blues, and we have some cool pop stuff on the list as well. I also love playing with Jeff because it’s so easy. It just works.”
“I love the melodies of the jazz classics and Erin sings them with authenticity and feeling,” Johnston said. “I enjoy that we have the chance to play nice venues with an interested crowd.”
Erin and Jeff (seems no one refers to them as Krebs and Johnston) play regularly at the cooler venues that feature music in Appleton, Neenah, Oshkosh and the greater Fox Valley.
It may not happen any time soon, but, from time to time, Erin and Jeff join The Jazz Orgy – Underwood, Andy Mertens on bass, Mark Martin playing keyboards and Steve Cooper on tenor sax – to form The Swinging Orgy. If you see this occurring, drop everything and go see/hear the show. With all due respect to KWT4 and Vic Ferrari, The Swinging Orgy may be the best live band in Wisconsin.
The Inquisition deeply regrets that it does not have the space or the facility with nuance and complexity to fully explain why the Norah Jones tune “Turn Me On” has been renamed “Boner In Sweat Pants,” by the esteemed members of The Jazz Orgy, but if you hear Erin sing it, you’ll get it.