Album Reviews

Johnny Nicholas

Fresh Air

Artist:     Johnny Nicholas

Album:     Fresh Air

Label:     Self Released

Release Date:     09/02/2016


The late Stephen Bruton comes to mind. After all, Johnny Nicholas is essentially playing with Bruton’s old band, the Resentments sans Jon Dee Graham, like he did on his 2011 release, Future Blues. And use of stringed instruments- especially the mandolin- is reminiscent of Bruton too.

That aside, this is a showcase for the legendary Johnny Nicholas, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. We only hear from Johnny every few years or so, making each of his releases special. He last appeared on 2012’s mostly Cajun music release, Golden Triangle, playing with David Greely and Sam Broussard of the Mamou Playboys. The title track appeared on that effort too. This recording is wide ranging – those Bayou sounds, roots music, ballads and, of course, what he is most known for– (as one of seminal forces of the New England blues scene) blues. In those days, forty years ago, Nicholas played with folks like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Hound Dog Taylor and far too many others to mention. He helped spawn careers for Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl. Since New England, he’s called Detroit, San Francisco and (since the 1980s) the Hill Country of Texas his home. He was a lead singer for Asleep at the Wheel when they won the first of their many Grammys. Bruton once said this about Nicholas, “Johnny Nicholas is one of the best bluesmen ever, black or white.” This writer is not willing to extend praise that far, but there’s no denying Nicholas’ many talents.

Fresh Air is a collection of stories and melodies that have haunted me for some time,” says Nicholas. “There are some different styles here, but all of this is the blues as I know it – as all American music and rock ‘n roll has sprung from the same source. I don’t understand a whole lot of what is going on in the modern world, but I do know I could use a little ‘fresh air’.”

Like Future Blues, this too is produced by bassist Bruce Hughes and features Austin-based Scrappy Jud Newcomb on guitars and an array of strings, John Chipman on drums, and Cindy Cashdollar guesting on lap steel and various guitars. Nicholas himself pays harmonica, various guitars and piano.

The album begins with the Delta harmonica-driven “Moonlight Train” and is followed with a mostly acoustic take on Sleepy John Estes “Kid Man Blues,” recognizable to many of you through Taj Mahal’s “Leaving Trunk.” Check out Hughes’ really cool bass line. “How Do You Follow a Broken Heart” is a stunning ballad that best exemplifies Nicholas’ vocal gifts. “Play Me (Like You Play Your Guitar)” is a sensual number co-written with Gary Nicholson. It makes me wonder why no one else has taken this tack before (maybe they have and I’m just unaware). Nonetheless, you can smile at these lines: “run your fingers down my neck” and “love the way you squeeze that note.” Try listening on headphones to best appreciate the guitar work of Nicholas, Newcomb and Cashdollar as they meld together. This is real roots music from a master.

For more information on that and Johnny’s mostly regional tour dates, visit his website.

-Jim Hynes

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