December won't be that mellow, off-stage at least, for guitarist John Floridis. He's kicked off a monthlong series of holiday benefit concerts. In an unrelated move, he recently released a digital album of instrumental recordings.
If you haven't been to a live show recently, you may have heard Floridis anyway. He's also the host of longtime "Musician's Spotlight" on Montana Public Radio, where he talks to musicians, both local and national, about their craft.
He hopes the concerts are an escape from "the ridiculousness of what the holiday season can be about," he said. The "crass commercialism" and stress often collide with seasonal affective disorder, which he struggles with. "It can be a dark time emotionally for people on all levels," he said.
Thematically, he thinks of the songs as a transition from darkness toward light, an outlook that happens to overlap with his own writing style.
He prefers to write music that starts in a "darker place" and then work out of it. The concerts draw on covers with vocals, plus two albums of Christmas music that he released: "The Peaceful Season" and "December's Quiet Joy." For those records, he crafted his own arrangements of holiday standards. He stays faithful to the melodies, while providing plenty of room for his own guitar skills.
Floridis, who played his first Christmas show about 10 years ago at the request of some friends, has grown them into a series of benefits for charities. This year, they'll take him to Billings, Bozeman, East Glacier, Hamilton, Helena, Whitefish and four total in Missoula. The shows here in his home-base are spread out to a variety of venues, like breweries (Imagine Nation), art galleries (E3 Convergence), churches (St. Paul Lutheran) and alternative spaces (The Public House).
The concert at E3 benefits Missoula Youth Homes, which hearkens back to his former career: he's a registered music therapist and social worker.
"On the surface, it comes from a similar place in me as a person, trying to reach out to people who are in need," he said.
He recalls a show in Helena a few years ago where a man in his 70s came up to him, somewhat nervously, and said the concert gave him a reprieve from the voices in his head.
"It was so humbling to have somebody say that," he said. "He didn't really tell me a whole lot more than that."
Floridis recently released a new digital album, "October Surprise" on Bandcamp.
The music was originally commissioned for a DVD, "Glacier Bay Serenity" that was put together in 2008. He didn't feel that music represented a direction he wanted to continue exploring, so he shelved them until recently.
He decided to release the music after a heart surgery last year. During a regular checkup, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur that they learned was a complete aortic stenosis, or calcification of the valve, which is fatal if untreated. His surgery was successful and he was playing gigs again within a month.
The title of the album turns the political term on its head, in reference to the time of year that he learned of his heart condition. All of the song names, added later, refer to the experience.
The music is pure Floridis, although the director of "Glacier Bay Serenity" gave Floridis a few suggestions. Covers of the Beatles "Norwegian Wood" and "Classical Gas" were cost-prohibitive, so Floridis instead tried to create tunes with the same energy rather than chord progressions or melodies. Looking back at it now, he says he doesn't hear much similarity to the cues he was given.
While the music sounds distinctly like Floridis, he said they came during a temporary phase in his career. He normally plays with artificial, extended fingernails on his picking hand. In the classical guitar world, long fingernails, whether natural or fake, are a requirement, and one that drastically changes the guitarist's sound.
"It's the first thing that puts the string into motion, that's all your communicating with," Floridis said.
During the time of this recording, he was going without them, inspired by gigs with his friend Kelly Joe Phelps. The change resulted in a "softer energy," he said. "There's still a drive to it, which is inherent in the way I play guitar."
While "October Surprise" is all originals, he feels that they make a nice companion piece to the seasonal records. Fans of his instrumental guitar work are sure to find something to admire in his inventive vamping and extended, melodic soloing.