Joni Bottari—Brown Eyed Women

Joni Bottari

My first musical memory was probably Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” and the Beatles. Dion lives down here and I got the opportunity to play with him recently. That was the very first album my brother bought when he was 12, so I was like five, so it all came full circle. 

 Picking up the guitar was thanks to my brother. Whatever he did, I wanted to do. He bought a Fender Mustang when he was 15, a little Univox amp with a Jensen speaker, and he started playing in a band that shared bills with Springsteen and all those bands on the Jersey Shore. He let me tag along. Looking back, that was pretty cool of him to bring his 10 year old kid sister to his band rehearsals. I got a Yamaha acoustic guitar when I was nine, and he showed me first position chords. He was basically a rhythm player. And that’s how it all started with me playing. 

So it was the late 60s. I was listening to a lot of Dylan and The Band, Van Morrison, The Beatles, Stones, Motown, Mike Bloomfield, all those people, then in 1970 my brother brought home Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. When he brought home those albums, I was nine and learning to play guitar at the same time—I hear “Uncle John’s Band” and I’m like, wow, holy shit. It blew me away. Then in ‘71, the live album came out and it said Dead freaks unite on the sleeve, but I was too young to realize what you do. Do you send a postcard? Do you send a letter? I couldn’t figure it out. So I never joined but that live album just grabbed me and there was no turning back. And I was 11, so I was still too young to go to shows. THEN I saw the New York Times section two, “Arts and Leisure,” it would always tell you where the shows were, so I remember in ’75 it said Jerry Garcia, Legion of Mary, and I’m like I have to go. I was 14. 

It was at the Capitol (in Passaic, NJ). I was 14 and I was just waiting until I could be old enough to go. I stole my mom’s Chevy Vega and drove 40 miles to the Capitol and that was the first time I saw Jerry; and that was the beginning, and there was no turning back. Fortunately, I didn’t get too much hell for borrowing the car. I was always a rebel. If there was a rule, I broke it. Then the next year was my first Grateful Dead show, at the Beacon Theatre. It was like the toughest ticket in the world. It was like incredibly hard. It was a lottery show and there were more people there without tickets than with tickets. I bribed the ticket guy with ten bucks and I was in! 

In terms of playing, my first band I played in was when I was 13 with a bunch of guys who now have very successful careers playing with a lot of people. We played like Stones and Beatles and Chuck Berry for our friends’ bar mitzvahs and 8th grade school dances. And then I had crippling stage fright for twenty years. After college, I answered an ad in the Village Voice for a lead guitar player for an all girl band, so I auditioned. I got the part and the tunes were good. All original, which they had to be to play CBGBs and all that. So that was my first girl band, it was called Spellbound. And I started to get really bad stage fright, like paralyzing. I’d try to take a Valium or a drink or something and nothing worked, and it’s brutal. So the band disbanded in like ’85, and I said that’s it, I’m done. I can’t do this. The nerves, the stress. So I didn’t play in public for 22 years. 

I kept playing—I played for my dog. I played for my friends—I said I would never perform again, because I was terrified. So I moved down to Florida in 2007 and there were some local bands down here and I just wanted to jam. I didn’t want to play in a band, I started jamming with some guys and they were like ‘You should be in a band.’ I said no way, I can’t do it. They eventually talked me into it. I finally caved in, and that was the first Grateful Dead tribute band.  They had a guy on standby for my first gig, which I didn’t know about until afterwards, because I was a nervous fucking wreck.

I felt comfortable, because here I am playing with guys who have been playing this music for twenty years, so I felt like they had my back, so to speak. So we played our first gig in Boca and it was awesome and terrifying at the same time. It’s gotten easier. There are times I still get butterflies for sure; but once I strum my first chord, I’m good. I might see a song on the set list and I’m like, oh, man, Jerry fucking shreds that, I’d better bone up on that one, but once I strum the chord I’m pretty much OK. Like a lot of things, once you do it, it’s not as bad as thinking about it.

Playing Jerry’s parts is one of those things that’s so intense, it’s hard to describe in words; and I’m not the most articulate person, but I’ll do my best. He just plays like no one else. Take the blues. Right? Take Jerry blues versus anybody else playing blues. Jerry turns on the major third. You know? All the other blues players are playing a pentatonic scale, but not Jerry. You know, you take “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” or any of those blues that he does in C, and he turns on a major third and it’s like who does that? Jerry. The chromatic runs that he does, no one else does that. And jazz infused diminished runs. And I’m like, what was that? You know? And he just takes it from his bluegrass days, to jazz infused, to a total spacing when he’s doing space to awesomeness—what I love about Jerry so much is that he wasn’t afraid to go for it. And unlike any other band that I know in history, they probably made more mistakes than any band that I’ve ever heard, but we were all so forgiving, because when he went for it in front of 40,000 people, playing without a net and he hit those runs, I was like, oh, shit. Are you kidding me? What was that? I mean, I don’t know anyone else who did that. I just don’t. Not to say it was always all good. It wasn’t…

He was very vulnerable, not only as a player, as a person. You saw it in his struggles. You saw he went through tough times, and I’m in recovery myself, so I understand that, you know, it was sad to see him so high. I mean, it was sad to see myself so high at times. When you have a problem it’s a battle. So, I mean, I could not only feel sad for him but relate to it myself. I wish he had found a 12step program like I did—it saved my life, but every one’s got their own journey.  

Playing with Brown Eyed Women is a joy. It’s magic… Eight years ago or so down here in Florida, Janis (aka Compass Rose, she runs GratefulDeadTributeBands.com) had a house party. David (Gans) was playing it and I attended and I met him for the first time, and I’m like, oh, wow, you’re playing a Rick Turner hybrid. It’s a cool guitar, and he’s like, you wanna try it? I replied. I’d love to. So I started playing “Bird Song” or something and he asked if I wanted to play a couple songs with him, and it was a blast.

So, eventually, the calls started to come in to “Tales from the Golden Road,” where are the female musicians playing this music? And his answer would always be my name. And it was like four times he had mentioned my name, and then the fifth time he mentioned my name and he mentioned another girl’s name, Denise. So I’m like, oh, wow, there is another girl. So I wonder who this girl is. So I go on Facebook. I’m looking up her name and I see she’s a drummer in a band in Woodstock, New York. Solid as fuck on drums and could sing. So I reach out to her and I said, hey, we both got a shout out today. Hey, I’m Joni. And we spoke to each other on the phone. 

We spoke and her dream was always to play in an all girl female tribute Grateful Dead band. And I said, man, that’s a tough one. I can’t even find a backup keyboard player in Palm Beach County when my guy’s out. However, I made friends online with Dana, who plays bass in Jersey, because when I travel, sometimes I look for Dead bands to sit in, and Jersey is my home state, and she’s really good. I mean, she’s really good. She’s solid. So I played with Jill and TheCause many times because she comes to Florida a lot, and plays with a lot of bands, so she had played in a band I was in, I must have played with her 10, 15 times, and so I gave her those two names, and Caroline in Boston came down and played with us in Florida once, because everyone likes to come to Florida when it’s freezing in New England in January. 

So I gave Denise three names. I said good luck and I really didn’t think I’d hear from her. And, of course, it was like all these different states. How is this even going to happen? So she called me back a month later from what I remember and said everyone is interested. And I said, wow. Interesting. I didn’t tell you about Jill. I told her about Dana and Caroline. Then I got ahold of Jill and told her about it. She loved the idea. Then came Kate. Someone had suggested Kate, a rhythm player out of Atlanta. 

Then it became, okay, we’re six women in our 50s. We live in six different states from Massachusetts to Florida. We’re not 25. I’m not going to live in a van down by the river and tour lol. You know? So how are we going to pull this off. How the fuck are we going to pull this off? So I called a friend down here, and I have a certain reputation in Florida with venues so between us, we got five venues to book us sight unseen.  

And then we started to have conference calls, like, do you want to do the ’89 version of “Let It Grow.” Do you want to do the ’78 version? Do you want the ’73 version of “Here Comes Sunshine?” Do you want to do it fast or slow?” Basically we tried to plan out what versions of what year, and this and that, as much as possible. And Andy Logan got wind of it, probably through David. We never met; the girls flew in from the northeast the day before our first show, which is the first time I actually met Denise, Dana, Kate. We had a marathon 11hour rehearsal. And when we got there, Andy Logan’s crew was there, camera crew, to document the whole thing, of us meeting for the first time, saying hello and everything and Jake (Cunavelis, director of Andy’s film) was great to work with, I can’t say enough about them. 

So you know, we just started playing, we took a pizza break and the next night we did our first show.  it was like we had been playing forever. I mean, it was just magic. I’m honored to share the stage with these incredibly talented musicians.

Pandemic Update

You know, for me, the pandemic didn’t change my life drastically, because in a way, I’ve been in training for this my whole life. I spend a lot of time at home alone. So all of a sudden, now the rest of the world is living the way I do—my life didn’t change that much initially. Then, after a couple of months, it started to get to me. I started to miss seeing friends and family. I live in South Florida and the weather is gorgeous, so I was able to still go to the beach, to the pool, walk around, ride my bike and do things outside in the middle of winter, which I know a lot of my friends up north weren’t able to do. They were shut down in the house where it was freezing outside. I’m so blessed to live in a place with a great climate. I started to play some socially distanced shows outdoors here in Florida, with my band Spiral Light. It was good for my head to be able to perform. I did my fair share of binge-watching on Netflix! I mean, I was binging like there was no tomorrow.  

I also collected a couple of JBL K120 speakers for my rig, which are getting harder to find. I picked up a few guitar pedals and worked on my pedal board. And, basically, that’s about it. 

 In the beginning I was terrified. I would go food-shopping and someone would come too close to my cart and I’d give them the eye, you know, like, hey, you’re getting too close to my cart there, buddy. I felt uncomfortable in the supermarket. Other than that, I really wasn’t going anywhere inside. All my gigs, the pool, the beach, and walking were outdoor activities. 

Thank G-d, Brown Eyed Women is making our return in June. We sold out both of our shows in four hours!  Our first gig back will be put on by All Good Presents. That will be in Baltimore, and then two shows in Jersey in June. That’s our comeback, the third, fourth and the fifth will be our first shows in a year and a half. We also have four shows booked in August—Charleston, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Atlanta. We will be in Florida in November as well. 

And boy will it be good to get back to playing.