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The Journal Gazette

The Devil I Know - Joey O Band

  • Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette Joey Ortega will bring his band, The Joey O Band, back to Fort Wayne for the first time in years this summer.

Thursday, April 06, 2017 1:00 am

Local musician Ortega playing city after long absence

Local musician Ortega playing city after long absence

STEVE WARDEN | The Journal Gazette

Buy the album

The "Auburn Sunset" CD and other Joey Ortega songs and CDs may be purchased at CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon.

In his aging, nondescript two-story home in an average neighborhood in an average northeast Indiana town lives Joey Ortega, whose look, life, and musical abilities are the antithesis of average.

The concrete steps leading up to the Auburn home are uneven and show their wear, and the front porch is serviceable, but plain. Inside, light-colored hardwood floors creak a bit when walked upon, and the most striking piece of furniture is the industrial-sized treadmill that sits on a rectangle carpet remnant in a space where perhaps the previous owners had a dining room.

For 20 years, he has lived in this location with his wife, Donna. And listening to Ortega talk about how happy he is here – his contentment – one can't help but hear the Eagles' early '70s tune, “Peaceful, Easy Feelin.' ”

Joey Ortega is 59; a year older than when the Beatles' George Harrison died. His gray hair is curly and touches the shoulders, a style similar to the Grateful Dead's late Jerry Garcia. His round sunglasses – today's are rose-colored – have become his trademark, as well as band logo.

There was a time when the Joey O Band, also beginning its 20th year, was a regular name in the Fort Wayne music scene. Their favorite haunts were the Hot Spot on Wells Street and the House of Jazz and Blues on Columbia Street, both of which have long since closed. Although some band members came and went, it was Ortega who was the constant, setting what small stage there might have been in a tiny bar or smoky club afire with his guitar virtuosity.

Like his two favorite downtown venues, Ortega also left Fort Wayne. But now he's coming back.

“I haven't played around here in years,” he says.

He walks down narrow steps off the kitchen and into his basement with a low ceiling and thin, brown carpet. The dark room's illumination is aided with a neon guitar outline on the wall. Five large, square Fender amplifiers and nearly a half dozen guitar cases and microphone stands and a sound mixer crowd the area. A stone fireplace that hasn't been lit in years is almost hidden behind the gear.

“I enjoyed playing the festivals and things like that, but I just got so sick of playing bars,” he says, sitting on a black, padded stool with the scripted Fender logo. “I didn't want to do it anymore. It's a whole lot of work for very little money, and it's not always the best environment to be in.”

And that was that. Like a laborer who swipes his hands together once or twice to signal the end of a job, Ortega and his band left town to play their music elsewhere. No one knew it at the time, but it was an end of an era.

Early work

Music was always important to him growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, but it really infiltrated his soul in his early teenage years. When he was 14, he was playing drums in a band that performed high school gigs. When he was 17, he was playing five nights a week, then getting up each morning for his senior year of high school.

After graduation he played where he could find work, whether it was studio sessions or concerts. Eventually, work would find him. He has played with Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana and B.B. King, to name a few. He has played the Hollywood Bowl. He's played the Los Angeles clubs, the trendy and no-so-trendy, and has recorded at Prince's Paisley Park studio.

“I think one of the keys as a musician is to listen to everybody, then do your own thing,” says Ortega, who prefers not to name just one musical influence. “I don't think you can afford to be influenced by anyone in particular.

“There's no such thing as 'the best.' There's a lot of guys who bring something interesting to the table. There's all these amazing players, and at the end of the day, it's nice that some people out there think of you as one of those guys.”

Since his name first appeared in '97, Ortega has been mentioned in “Guitar World” magazine and was selected as one of the top 10 new guitarists in the country.

Coming home

In the midst of leaving Fort Wayne behind and new members of the Joey O Band coming and going, Ortega formed another group eight years ago. Its name, Start Me Up, is taken from the classic 1981 Rolling Stones song, which makes sense because the group is a Stones tribute band.

As he cradles one of his many Fender Epiphone guitars – all of them custom made by master builder Todd Krause – Ortega casually breaks into the familiar, unamplified opening riff of “Paint It Black,” then smiles.

“2017 is the first time ever that both bands are going to play in this area,” he says.

The Joey O Band will play the summer Rock the Plaza series in front of the Allen County Public Library June 10 and play July 7 at the DeKalb Outdoor Theater. Then on Sept. 29, Start Me Up will bring its Stones repertoire to the DeKalb County Free Fall Fair.

The obvious question is why: Why is Joey Ortega returning to the local scene he left long ago?

“Kirk,” Ortega nearly shouts. “Kirk hounded me and hounded me and hounded me and hounded me.”

Kirk Johnson, a local financial adviser, is the lead singer for both bands and an unabashed Joey Ortega fan.

“I don't think this is just my opinion, but he is the No. 1 guitar talent in our region, and he just disappeared from the market,” Johnson says. “Here we are, out doing stuff regionally, and I felt really passionate. … He's not going to be around forever, and the Fort Wayne market deserves to see him. He's like a hidden treasure. There's no reason for him to be hidden.”

Ortega is back in the open, this time with a new 12-track CD, “Auburn Sunset.”

For now, he sits in the basement of his modest home on the east side of Auburn, and he's quite content being here.

“I didn't want to be rich,” he says.

“I wanted to earn a living. And there's a difference. In order to get rich, you have to have ruthless ambition, and you really have to be ready to make a deal with the devil. In order to make a living, you just have to be really good and resourceful.”

There is another Stones song: “You Can't Always Get What You Want.” Ortega smiles again, talks about a life of music that began when he was 14, and says these days he can pick and choose what he wants to play and where he wants to play it.

“And if we don't have a great offer,” he says, “I can just pass and stay home and watch TV with Donna.”

stwarden@jg.net