It has been about four decades when I saw Guitar Johnny and the Rhythm Rockers along with blues legends Walter Horton and Johnny Shines outside Buffalo NY. Of course the chance to see Horton and Shines may have been my prime motivation, but Johnny Nicholas and his band were outstanding on their own, not simply as a backing band to Horton and Shines. That was part of a tour promoting albums by Nicholas, Horton and Shines and it was quite a memorable nite. Nicholas, part of a New England scene that included Duke Robillard, Sugar Ray and the BlueTones, and Roomful of Blues, would eventually move to Austin, Texas where he became part of that music scene as well as expanding his musical palette to include Western Swing in a tenure with Asleep at the Wheel.
Nicholas has a new album "Fresh Air," with blues and roots songs where he and his multi-instrumental talents (piano, guitars and more) is joined by an all-star cast that includes Scrappy Jud Newcomb (guitars, mandolin, mandocello), John Chipman (drums, percussion, vocals) and Bruce Hughes (bass, vocals, percussion), plus a guest list that includes Cindy Cashdollar (lap steel and additional guitars), and Steve Riley on button accordion. There are interpretations of Sleepy John Estes' "Kid Man Blues" and Howlin' Wolf's classic recording, "Back Door Man," along with eleven originals that he penned or had a hand in writing.
His blues roots are evident of his opener, "Moonlight Train" where he sings about dreaming about the falling rain and a chill down his spine when he heard that moonlight train set against a reworking of the "Rollin' and Tumblin'" melody. It is followed by his original take of Estes' "Kid Man Blues," adding a country accent, almost in the manner of the late Levon Helm. "Red Light" is a stomping rocker with Cindy Cashdollar's steel guitar with Nicholas pounding the piano and Steve Riley adding accordion breaks almost in the manner of Spade Cooley or Garth Hudson. "Sweet Katrina" has him recalling hoboing on freight trains from Chicago to Memphis and meeting Katrina, initially a sweet woman but who got meaner than a one-eyed dog," and might evoke classic Little Feat for some. Then there is his woman who wants Johnny to "Play Me (Like You Play Your Guitar)," a neat lyric by him and Gary Nicholson. "How Do You Follow a Broken Heart" is a lovely blues-ballad that will conjure up some classic West Coast blues from Charles Brown and early Ray Charles with lovely Cashdollar steel guitar adding to its appeal, while "Roll On Mississippi" is reflective folk-country ballad, with Newcomb's mandolin adding to the song's mood. Other high points includes a very imaginative recasting of "Backdoor Man," and the title song, a lovely country ballad.
The playing from Nicholas and his band is terrific, and Nicholas sings with heart and authority throughout making this a superb album of American roots in the tradition of The Band, Levon Helm, Anders Osborne, and others.
I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the November-December Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 369). His website is http://johnnynicholasblues.com/. Here is Johnny performing "Back Door Man" and "Fresh Air."