Jon Itkin
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Jon Itkin

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Jun
16
Jon Itkin @ Edgefield Winery

Troutdale, Oregon, USA

Troutdale, Oregon, USA

Jun
10
Jon Itkin @ Luckey's

Eugene, Oregon, USA

Eugene, Oregon, USA

May
20
Jon Itkin @ Jo Federigo's

Eugene, Oregon, USA

Eugene, Oregon, USA

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Music

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Friday, June 9, 2006

Jon Itkin stopped trying to be Bob Dylan a long time ago - well he's only 23, so "a long time ago" can't be that long - but when he picked up the guitar at age 13, the singer-songwriter learned to play and write by mimicking His Bobness.

As an English major at the University of Pittsburgh, his music got in-your-face political. But by the time he came to Oregon about three years ago, he had changed his tune.

"I'd write songs to-order for whatever rally it was. Angry vitriolic songs," the University of Oregon senior says. "Eventually, I felt like I was banging my head against the wall. ...

"It was like trying to rally the people when there are like 24 of them."

Now, Itkin has settled into his own alternative country style, one that leans on imagery and spare wording to get a message out.

He's trying to make his statement by telling stories, creating characters - a sound he describes in his bio as "Nebraska-era Springsteen, Beck and Johnny Cash having a guitar pull at Armadillo World Headquarters."

On June 17, he will pick up his journalism degree and set about trying to make music his career. (Journalism, he says, is a backup choice.)

"I feel confident about my music. I put a lot of heart and soul into it," says Itkin, who was one of three finalists during this year's new song contest at the Willamette Valley Folk Festival. "At this point in my life, I feel like I am a pretty good judge of my stuff."

A nostalgic jones

Itkin's first "gig" was at a coffeehouse in Rochester, N.Y., where he got permission to set up his gear and play some songs with friends.

He posted signs around his school. To his surprise, 80 of his classmates mobbed on the 30-person-capacity shop.

"That was one of those moments. I was walking on air," Itkin says. "I made like 40 bucks. It was awesome. It was so great."

His unease with his plain, suburban upbringing influences his musical choices.

"It was this faceless nameless suburb, there was no community, no town," he says. "All we did when we were kids was get drunk in the park or get stoned in the park or go to the Pink Floyd laser show."

He's homesick for a home he never lived in.

"I really always had a nostalgic jones," he says. "I liked the black-and-white Looney Tunes. It's so easy to idealize. ...

"In my own mind I created this world where everything is peachy and classic - in soft focus."

On his first and only release, "Oregon," he spins tales of ending up in jail after a night of drinking, the state taking away his "momma," and the woes of the working man who can't retire on $12 an hour. He says his songs are not all true, but there's always a kernel of truth.

After going home to New York for the summer, the Northwest convert plans to return and make his home on the left coast. If this "rough-cut diamond," as The Oregonian calls him, makes the big time, he will look back at Eugene as the place he began to play seriously and where he cut his first album.

He'll be back through town soon, he promises.

"I feel good about what I've been able to accomplish here," he says. - The Register-Guard


ROUGH-CUT DIAMOND -- With the fingers on one hand you can tick off the popular singer-songwriters with less-than-perfect voices and great lyrics: Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson.

Here's another -- one you've probably never heard of, but someone you should get to know: Jon Itkin.

Itkin's songs sound like country with a little bit of rock 'n' roll, and Northwest locals will recognize landmarks throughout his lyrics.

A 23-year-old journalism major at the University of Oregon, Itkin heads up from Eugene to play Ash Street Saloon on Wednesday. The gig likely will be equal parts raw musicianship, unique melodies and thoughtful prose.

"Jon has the 'it,' " says Portland musician Scotland Barr. "I'm not exactly sure what 'it' is, but it's what makes writers good." The frontman of Scotland Barr and the Slow Drags used two of Itkin's songs on his group's latest CD, and plans to use more. "He has the ability to be honest and original. He has a knack of making his songs intimate, personal and digestible.

"I was happy that he entrusted me with his songs; they're two of the best tracks on the CD."

Itkin has a rare ability to match highly literate lyrics with unusual, catchy melodies. (Plus, he's been playing guitar for only 10 years -- a relatively short time in the music biz.) Other musicians playing his songs, Itkin ticks off, include "a guy in Michigan named Mark Duval, an old guy in Eugene and some kids from a high school in a band that had a demo of a song I wrote. It's actually kind of an honor." - The Oregonian


Jon Itkin makes a hell of a debut with Oregon, and album recorded in Eugene with Itkin singing, playing guitar, harmonica, slide guitar and lap steel. Itkin's voice and folk-country guitar handiwork has a musical wisdom beyond his years, drawing obvious comparsions to some classics like Dylan on tracks like "Born and Raised in Tacoma" and "Like a Bruise," with plumes of jangly guitar following each line of verse. Some songs, like "Unless I Get Drafted" and "Lullaby #2" sound a lot like Beck with their laid back rhythm and quirky, slow-delivered lyricism like "there's a neon cross on top of the hill and the whole town smells like the paper mill." Rating: Root Beer out of food worth getting cavities for.
- The Oregon Voice


With the sheer volume of music being released both online and on "old-fashioned" CDs and records, it's hard for even the most popular of artists in the Northwest to get heard amid the din. For most musicians, it takes some note of distinction to help their songs stand out from the pack.
For Jon Itkin, it is the imperfection of his vocals that end up helping rather than hindering his music. The warm baritone he showcases on his latest CD, "Big Gold Guitar in the Sky," has an unpolished quality that works wonders for his confessional lyrics, giving them an even richer sense of honesty. On "Fool to Wander," a lament of wasted days on the run, Itkin's deadened voice perfectly emulates the weary traveler who decided to stop along his journey and get his story out to the world. Along for the ride is a top-notch batch of musicians who gently coax these songs between the dark country of Giant Sand and a Merle Haggard-like honky-tonk. - The Oregonian


Jon Itkin's new album, Big Gold Guitar in the Sky, showcases the songwriting skill and raw musicianship Itkin revealed in his debut, Oregon, and blows the lid off a few other hidden talents as well. Formerly a cornerstone of the Eugene alt-rock/Americana scene, Itkin recently relocated to Portland after a stint of recording on the East Coast. That trip began a process of cross-country recording collaboration; with a little help from some professional studio musicians from the Eastman School of Music, Itkin laid down half the tracks for Gold Guitar before returning to the West Coast, where he completed his sophomore effort with the none-too-shabby help of Chet Lyster of Eels and Paul Brainard and Rich Lander of Richmond Fontaine.
"It was an adventure making it," Itkin says, laughing. "I was flying by the seat of my pants, operating dollar to dollar. Every single track, none of it was recorded entirely live."
Digitally crafting a roots rock album is an endeavor that could have gone stylistically awry, but luckily Itkin's musical integrity didn't allow the power of remastering to go to his head. Every rockin' track on Gold Guitar really is pure gold; soulfully executed, lyrically stunning and punctuated with just the right amount of instrumental flair. While he doesn't stray too far form his bread-and butter-sound, Itkin is no one-trick pony. He takes a few delightful risks, most notably on the slinky, sexy "Another Man's Hell" and steel guitar haunted "Factory Moon."
Itkin bids farewell to Eugene in the boot-stomper "Emerald Valley," which he describes as a "love letter to Eugene."
"I get watery eyes every time I come back," he admits. "I wrote it as a blessing to express how much I loved my time there." - Eugene Weekly


AMERICANA] Jon Itkin is from New York state, but you'd never know it by the 10-gallon-hat kind of drawl he employs on the first word of his sophomore release, Big Gold Guitar In the Sky. The scruffy, 24-year-old blond drops his voice way down and twists it up with a twang that would fit right in on modern country radio when he sings the word: "halfway."

But Itkin saves the track (called, fittingly, "Halfway"), which could be perceived as hokey, with his earnest charm and a sweet, bar-rock inspired organ part courtesy of Rich Landar (Richmond Fontaine, Floater). Elsewhere on the album—which is far more fleshed out than Itkin's self-produced debut, Oregon (self-released in 2005)—Chet Lyster (Eels) and Paul Brainard (The Sadies, M. Ward) infuse Itkin's tracks with spirited electric guitar and confettilike speckles of lap steel and dobro, respectively. The song "10 Pack of Years"—a perceptive take on faded love in which Itkin sorrowfully sings, "We used to make love/ Out in the back lawn/ Now we're eatin' dinner/ With the TV on"—is made all the more poignant thanks to Brainard's haunting lap steel and earthy backing vocals by Annalisa Tornfelt.

But it's just this kind of perfectly executed mellow Americana that makes Big Gold Guitar's more rockin' tracks a little disappointing. Like the perfect Itkin gateway drug, a song from Oregon titled "My Work Is Never Done," the most lovely tracks on Big Gold Guitar are also its most gentle. "Sing Rosetta," a beautiful ballad lifted by Tornfelt's echo, and "Patience (All We Ever Do Is Wait)," a driving, creepy rumination on our numbered days, simply blow away the album's more straightforward country-rock numbers. Though Itkin—who's clearly stoked to be playing with a full band—delivers the blues-riff-fueled "American Blood" and upbeat, bluegrass-tinged "Emerald Valley Song" with fervor and heart, his craftsmanship as a songwriter shines brightest when he takes it slow.

The crown jewel of Big Gold Guitar is, without a doubt, the bluesy and wicked "Devil In Another Man's Hell," which addresses both war and infidelity by way of slinky, sexy instrumentation and hushed vocals. Despite the timeless examinations of human nature offered up on Big Gold Guitar, Itkin says the album's central image—which came to him while watching the Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me—represents both the power and transience of music. "It's the fantasy that we're all chasing," he explains. "It's the soul-wrenching, greasy goodness that comes from self-expression, but it's fleeting and mercurial." On the last line of the title track, Itkin sings, "Good songs make fast friends/ But they don't stick around when all the singing's done." In the wake of Big Gold Guitar, he may be eating his words.

- Willamette Week


Jon Itkin is a liar..sort of. After a few listens to his self-released debut, Oregon, the newly local singer-songwriter had me convinced that his mother is in prison. He also had me convinced..based on his mature, insightful lyrics and world-weary voice..that he's been around the block more than a few times.

But, despite his songs' specific imagery and the tired, knowing tone of his 24-year-old voice, my convictions (for the most part) are not true. "I was a fiction major," Itkin explains, "but I didn't write any fiction. I only wrote for class, and I spent all my other time writing music." He also mentions that an early love of Bob Dylan (which he credits to his father's record collection) initially schooled him in "high-art lyrical stuff." And the subjects of Itkin's rootsy music..tunes that range from blues rock to straight-up country to honky-tonk and folk..take you places, whether it's watching Saturday-morning cartoons with that fictional mother, getting drunk in Tacoma or road-tripping to California.

"You always have to put yourself in your art," he admits. "You're a liar if you say you're not there." But it's more through his keen understanding of human emotion than autobiographical details that Itkin inhabits his songs: On "10 Pack of Years," he sings, "We used to make love out in the back lawn/ Now we're eatin' dinner/ With the TV on." Itkin uses convincingly real characters and settings to create songs that are as intensely personal as they are relatable. "I like to take my life experiences...and project them onto stories," he says.

Such effective storytelling won Itkin the New Song Contest at Eugene's 2006 Willamette Valley Folk Fest..where he says he played "for a hundred burnt-out 55-year-old hippies at 12 in the afternoon." And though Itkin wrote and recorded Oregon in Eugene as well, he says he's finally been able to "connect the dots" in Portland. Thanks to a stint playing lead guitar for Scotland Barr & the Slow Drags, Itkin met Floater's Rich Landar, which led to his meeting accomplished steel guitarist Paul Brainard and Chet Lyster, who's worked with Fernando and the Eels.

Now, Itkin has assembled a sort of revolving-door live band (via Craigslist) that he calls "Some Like-Minded Souls," and he's busy recording a new album, Big Gold Guitar in the Sky, with Landar, Brainard and Lyster (to be released in March). "With that first record," he says, "I had full arrangements in my head for every single song." With Guitar, however, Itkin says his music is actually taking on "the sound [he] imagined."
That sound is as evident of the music Itkin loves..old country, Dylan, Nebraska-era Springsteen..as who he is. And for a 24-year-old, he's acutely aware of his identity: "I feel really out of place sometimes with the hip stuff," Itkin explains. But he's quick to add, "I'm not gonna change. I'm gonna do what I wanna do, musically. I'm never gonna wear a mullet, I'm never gonna own a pair of Chuck Taylors, I'm never gonna adopt a persona. It's not real for me. Maybe that is really real for somebody else...I'm not better than them. It's just not real to me." - Willamette Week


"Before denim went Hollywood and Third World children bloodied their little knuckles wearing out the knees on new jeans so you'd look like you actually did something in them, they were the threads of the working man. Jon Itkin's music is of this denim and wood and wire, and the rust and wear that ensues."
"Living in Oregon now, this Rochester ex-pat's songs are as lonesome and big sky beautiful as a McMurtry novel. His music speaks of long-gone frontiers and will stop you in your tracks. Damn, this guy is good."
"It's a cryin' shame Townes Van Zandt and Dave Von Ronk aren't around to dig this cat…" - City Paper


It's titled 'Ten-Pack of Years' (as in 'what the hell's a decade but a...), and it's hit me harder than any song I've crossed paths with in '08. The opening couplet -"We used to make love out in the back lawn/Now we're eating dinner with the TV on"- expresses a ten-year ache that the young guy behind the song, Brooklyn-based Jon Itkin, couldn't possibly have faced unless he got hitched when he was 15. Later, after a night of recollection and Nebraska, the protagonist's recurring, wife-directed declaration 'I remember you' becomes filled with the cautious joy of rediscovery. Itkin's voice, old for its age and backed by mournful pedal steel, sells it all: the despair, the search, and the hope. Elsewhre, Itkin deftly swings ('American Blood'), trucks ('Bismarck'), and soothes ('Sing Rosetta'). He's far from the first singer-songwriter/roots-rocker whose songs pray to Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Jay Farrar. Not all prayers are answered with such promise. - No Depression


Discography

Big Gold Guitar in the Sky
Released 2007
Produced By Chet Lyster (Lucinda Williams, Eels)

Oregon -Released 2005
Produced by Jason Robbins (Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam).

Photos

Bio

Jon Itkin is a 25-year old guitar playing fool with a taste for the timeless, a big ornery streak and a deep love of words. A folk musician, a twangy picker and a rough-hewed vocalist, he makes up and sings songs from a world both immeasurable and local, conjuring mythological folk tales into what might be called Americana music. It's a sound that covers a lot of territory, but sticks to a few fundamentals. A little country, a little rock 'n roll, some ragtime, some old-time, soul and blues... Journalists have mentioned Jon in the same breath as Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, James and Larry McMurtry, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, which he considers an incredible honor. Singers across the nation play Jon's songs, as do podcasters, DJs and music lovers.

Since releasing Oregon, his first record, in 2005, Jon has been the subject of numerous print features and made many live radio and television appearances. Contributors to Jon’s recorded material include such notables as producer/engineer Jason Robbins (Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens), who recorded Oregon in his house with a laptop and a few mics, and Chet Lyster, the guitar player for Eels, who recorded, produced and mixed the bulk of Big Gold Guitar in the Sky. Also appearing on Big Gold Guitar are keyboardist Rich Landar (Richmond Fontaine, Floater) steel guitarist Paul Brainard (M Ward, the Sadies, Richmond Fontaine) and honey-voiced Portand chanteuse Annalisa Tornfelt.

Jon is currently touring as a solo performer at venues small and large throughout the country. He plays many of his Northwest gigs with his four-piece backing band, Some Like-Minded Souls.