For two years after he graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in physics, Keith Johns worked as a technician in a radiocarbon-dating laboratory, running particle accelerators to separate isotopes of carbon to determine the age of various samples, mostly charred wood and charcoal that might date back 40,000 years.
For Johns, there had always been something comforting in the quantifiable, the verifiable, the known. Every day in the lab, empirical, measurable evidence would provide Johns with an answer, the answer. In physics, there is only one correct answer to a question.
But it was at that lab that Johns gave in to the more conceptual, emotional notions rattling around in his brain, vestigial flickers of the Willie Nelson and Gordon Lightfoot songs Johns’ father played for his young son, echoes of the trumpet Johns played with his Palmetto High School ska band.
“I do think there are two sides of my personality that need expressing — the logical and concrete and the creative and the abstract,” he says. “I found that I was doing all logical and concrete and that led to this explosion of creative writing. I was a canary in a bird cage in a sense. I wrote pretty much all the lyrics to my latest album while I was sitting at this desk, at this lab-tech desk, doing other things, but desiring the creative outlet.”
The result was “Grateful Fool,” a beautifully rendered debut album of wistful, joyful, soulful indie-folk introspection that celebrates all that is illogical about the human capacity for love and dreams and sorrow. Released in October 2016, “Grateful Fool” was a followup to a 2014 EP, “Maps and Plans.”
Johns, 28, says “Grateful Fool” is about regaining a fresh appreciation for what each of us has in life. On the title track, Johns sings: “Such a lonely man, so finely dressed / Plays at life like a game of chess / Tell me, what will the poor soul think / When his hand, with its wristwatch and rings / Starts to shake and then topples his king / Tell me now, what will he think?”
On Friday, Jan. 5, Johns will share music from the album, and perhaps some of the new songs he’s planning to release in 2018, when his monthly First Fridays folk series debuts at Wynwood Yard in Miami. Johns will be accompanied by his band, including guitarist Adam Robl, Shawn Sutta on keyboards, Eric England on upright and electric bass, and drummer Matt Davis. Also on the bill to kick off the series will be Roberta Burke and her band.
The series is a continuation of the collaboration between Johns and Wynwood Yard at Miami Folk in 2016 and the Sunset Bayou festival in November, two events linked by an interest in nurturing the folk-music community of performers and fans.
The rising popularity of acoustic and Americana acts on radio and in concert halls has lifted all boats, even in South Florida, Johns says. Where he used to have trouble finding bands willing to fill out the bill for his events, he now has people calling him to perform.
“Miami was a little bit slow on the uptake,” he says, citing the dominant, club-music party scene. “But it’s finally trickled out and gotten to Miami, and I think enough people like the music and they want to see it. Ultimately, it’s the people that decide what will happen with the events they go to. But I’m pretty ecstatic to see it.”
Since its debut a little more than two years ago, the Wynwood Yard consistently has been a place where fans of live music could find their favorite acts and discover new ones. The venue’s commitment to local performers will be on display throughout January with a diverse menu of new music series and spotlight concerts. Here’s a look at the month’s offerings. Admission is free to all these shows.
Jazz at the Yard, 8-11 p.m. Wednesdays: Curated by Chad Bernstein of Guitars Over Guns and the Spam Allstars, the weekly schedule includes Magela Herrera (Jan. 3), Jean Caze and Amédé (Jan. 10), the Tim Jago Quartet (Jan. 17), the Russ Spiegel Organ Trio (Jan. 24), the Troy Roberts Quartet (Jan. 31).
First Fridays with Keith Johns, 9-11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 5: Miami folksinger-songwriter Keith Johns shares the stage every month with some of his favorite performers, opening with Roberta Burke and band.
Reggae Sundays, 2 p.m.-midnight Sundays: The weekly series from Kulcha Shok has a different vibe each time out. First Sundays open with family activities from Kulcha Kids noon to 2 p.m., followed on Jan. 7 by reggae from Tree House; the second Sunday has a vinyl theme, co-hosted by Peppabox, with music from Red Lyte on Jan 14; Surfer Night, with surf movies co-hosted by the Surfrider Foundation, are on third Sundays, with Jahfe performing Jan. 21; Kulcha Latino is on the fourth Sunday, with Pulga Negus Nagast on Jan. 28. When they occur, Fifth Sundays will offer Skavelution, a salute to Jamaica’s ska culture.
A Night With Elastic Bond and Friends, 7:30-10:30 p.m. Thursdays: Elastic Bond’s monthly jam session kicks off Jan. 11 with a night of its signature psychedelic tropical soul along with energetic sounds from like-minded performers to be named.
Twyn and Afrobeta, 7:30-11 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6: The sugar and spice of the electro-funky duo Afrobeta is paired with an opening dose of indie-electronic duo Twyn, also known as keyboardist Jason Matthews and drummer-singer Aaron Glueckauf of Electric Kif and Lemon City Trio.
Oigo and Brothers of Others, 8-11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12: The loopy Latin folk dub of Oigo (Suenalo's Adrian Gonzalez) contrasts with the rootsy R&B jams of Miami Beach-based Brothers of Others.
Alex Di Leo, 8-10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18: The young Fort Lauderdale indie-pop singer-songwriter has been gathering momentum in the past 18 months with South Florida appearances at the For the Love Music Festival, SunFest and the Riptide Music Festival.
Xperimento, 9:30-11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19: A night of funky Latin reggae from the Miami-based band, with DJ ClauNine spinning a post-concert set.
Cortadito and Yoli Mayor, 7:30-11 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20: The Cuban folklore group Cortadito is joined by Yoli Mayor, the young Miami singer who brought down the house on the most recent season of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
Nacho Londono, 8:30-10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25: A performance by the engaging indie-rock singer-songwriter from Medellin, Colombia, now based in Miami.
Black & Creme and Shenzi, 7:30- 11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26: Two bands that enthusiastically defy easy categorization, layering indie rock, soul, hip-hop and electronica, each led by dazzling female lead singers, Black & Crème’s Katrina Rose Tandy and Shenzi’s Des Bannister.
Leslie Cartaya and Locos por Juana, 7:30-11 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27: Another fine coupling with the captivating Cartaya, lead vocalist of Latin-funk band Palo!, and the infectious cumbia-reggae grooves of LPJ.