A local guitar legend moves away from his hard-rock past

Long regarded as one of the finest rock guitarists in St. Louis, Jimmy Griffin’s made a bold move in recent months, taking his The Incurables project from the basement tapes level into the live arena. And so, on a bone-chilling Monday evening in early December, a musician considered one of the best at his craft locally took to the stage and sang his songs for the first time, backed by a crack, hand-picked band. The results were pretty impressive.

It’s a move that’s been a long time coming.

A linchpin member of the hard-rock band Kingofthehill – and its popular local predecessor, Broken Toyz – Griffin was headlining packed local venues coming out of his teens, with KOTH releasing one album on SBK Records back then. The group’s national tour and record deal were halted by the rise of Seattle’s grunge scene, which nipped the careers of many a glam/funk/metal band. But Griffin’s work in KOTH was still highly regarded by peers, who continued drafting him into emerging projects for the next decade or so.

After stints with the original acts Full on Venus and Neptune Crush and the cover group Tiny Cows, Griffin was pulled into the late Nadine about five years ago. It was a band that couldn’t be squarely pegged into the “Americana” or “country rock” holes, but was a group certainly on a different path than his previous outfits.

“I met everybody in St. Louis in Kingofthehill,” Griffin joked. “And then I met everybody else when I was in Nadine.” The stint in that group certainly opened up both eyes and ears, as the ace guitarist-for-hire not only had the chops for arena-sized rock but cuts that required a subtler touch.

Those skills continue to pay off for Griffin, who was recently a sideman in a pair of over-the-top cover projects at The Pageant: Celebration Day, a Led Zeppelin tribute that wowed audiences; and El Monstero y Los Masked Avengers, a long-running Pink Floyd cover project including members of The Urge, Stir and Joe Dirt that played The Loop’s biggest rock club for four nights in December.

“I’m trying to keep things diverse,” Griffin said. “Those shows afford me nights when I’m playing with people I like for not a lot of money, nights when I can play for $20 and still have a blast.”

The Incurables are, at the moment, a group that’s probably not going to make mad money, though the group’s debut at Off Broadway suggested a remarkably competent, veteran band with a surprisingly tuneful songwriter at the microphone. In addition to Griffin, the band basically contains the same members as the group Walkie Talkie U.S.A., another band that Griffin moonlights in when time allows. With him in both groups are multi-instrumentalists Jason Hutto and Jordan Heimberger, drummer Joe Meyer and guitarist/backing vocalist Bryan Hoskins.

“I call it ‘evil Tom Petty rock,’” cracked Griffin. “It’s the first time I’ve ever fronted a band. It reflects a lot of the changes that I’ve been through. Especially being in Nadine, that opened me up to a lot of music that I’d liked but had never played before. Also I’m older. I grew up playing screaming rock’n’roll, but that’s a young man’s game. This is something I can do 10 years from now, 20 years from now.”

Hutto – who writes and sings the songs of Walkie Talkie U.S.A. and backs Griffin’s songs on bass in The Incurables – said that Griffin’s tracks are “songs with great pop hooks. And the guitar work is unbelievable. Basically, he’s labored over all of it himself. He’s done all this layered work, these orchestral parts that’re
really awesome.

“The music feels familiar, without needing to compare it to so-and-so. He’s Jimmy; that’s what’s so cool about it: He’s free here to find his own voice. He’s always been this guitar-slinger, but for him to come out and do what he’s done is really great. It’s cool to be a part of it, in some small aspect.”

Griffin’s catchy sound will be on display intermittently in the new year, but his immediate goal is to rerecord his demo tracks. Though he knocks the “lifeless drum loops,” to the newcomer’s ear, the cuts are a remarkable batch of assured, polished songs, as appropriate for Sunday morning as they are on Saturday night.

Griffin works as a guitar tech for the steady-touring Jay Farrar for a good five months out of the year, but we’re hopeful that he continues to find time for this most welcome – and, yes, unpredicted – addition to the local rock scene.