In 2018, emerging musicians commonly hashtag artists they admire on Instagram or @ them on Twitter, hoping for a signal boost that might get them new listeners. In the 80s and 90s, though, the analog to this social-media circuit was tape trading (eventually people started using burned CDs, but “CD trading” doesn’t have the same ring).
Among the most successful at this organic style of self-promotion was Jonny Polonsky, a Chicago-born, Wilmette-raised singer-songwriter who began hand-distributing his self-produced cassettes at shows around the city when he was still a teenager. By 1994, when he reached legal drinking age, he’d already made fans of the likes of Marc Ribot, Jeff Buckley, and John Zorn. That same year he released a demo produced by Frank Black, which quickly persuaded Rick Rubin to sign him to American Recordings. Polonsky’s 1996 debut album, Hi My Name Is Jonny, brims with smart, pristine power pop, and it made him a critical darling; stints on Lollapalooza and other cross-country tours followed.
From the outside it seemed like he’d realized his teenage dreams, but privately Polonsky was uncomfortable in this sudden limelight. By the end of the 90s, he’d switched his focus to collaborating and touring with other bands and musicians (he continued to write his own material, though he wasn’t releasing it). He racked up credits writing, producing, or recording for Johnny Cash, Pete Yorn, the Dixie Chicks, and many others. After Polonsky’s trio Big Nose (with Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, both of whom played in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave) collaborated on a few tunes with Maynard James Keenan of Tool and A Perfect Circle, Polonsky became a member of the unfortunately named Keenan side project Puscifer from 2007 till 2010.
In 2004, Polonsky had reemerged as a solo artist, following up Hi My Name Is Jonny with the full-length The Power of Sound. As you might expect from an artist who can work in such a diversity of musical settings, he’s never short of cards up his sleeve when it comes to his own songs. Now decades into his career, Polonsky has shed the fresh-faced, quirky sheen of his debut, but his skill with hooks has only gotten sharper—as has his ability to rip a killer guitar solo. He’s put out two albums in the past few years—2015’s The Other Side of Midnight and this January’s Fresh Flesh, which features cameos from Mark Lanegan and Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins—and on both of them he explores increasingly smoky, sultry pop textures, often laced with spacey psychedelic flourishes worthy of Ziggy Stardust.
Polonsky no longer calls Chicago home—he’s lived in Los Angeles and New York over the past several years—but on Wednesday, November 28, he and his backing band come to GMan Tavern for a homecoming show celebrating the release of Unreleashed: Demos and Rarities 1996-2018 (Jett Plastic), a mix of album outtakes and unreleased tracks from the self-imposed hiatus in Polonsky’s solo career. It’s the perfect opportunity to remind yourself that guitar pop hasn’t lost an ounce of its power since it was invented.