A profound sense of knowhow — besides the ultra-cool entertainment — permeates every element of “Fresh Air.”
Of course, the multi-instrumentalist, writer, and singer Johnny Nicholas has been making music long enough that a certain amount of wisdom in his songs has to be expected. He’s also the kind of guy whoi hangs up his music career for a decade to raise his family.
Nicholas formed his first blues band with guitarist Duke Robillard in Rhode Island in the mid-1960, and not long after hung with Howlin’ Wolf in New York City. In the mid-1970s, he gave a young Ronnie Earl one of his first guitar jobs, and closed out the decade singing and playing all kinds of things that swing, Western-style, with Asleep At The Wheel. Then he quit.
But all that incredible knowledge not only stayed with him, but expanded. Nicholas calls the various stylistic shifts on the new album, “the blues as I know it,” and the title nails that sentiment. Recorded in Austin, Texas, this is one vigorous, inventive musical journey from start to finish by a man who’s been there.
To begin, Nichols shouts at the devil with his blues harp on “Moonlight Train,” a spooky story about losing a partner. That leads into “Kid Man Blues,” credited to Sleepy John Estes, but so original in sweet melody and theme, Nicholas could call it his own. The lush instrumentation, especially by Nicholas, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, and Cindy Cashdollar, rings out spectacularly.
“Red Light” then barrels through the dodgy intersection of a man and his gal with Texas boogie-country intensity, Nicholas’ piano and Cashdollar’s lap steel pumping away. Lowdown and dirty, “Sweet Katrina” speaks of a backwoods-mean woman with a big screen TV and a closet full of shoes, Nicholas’ guitar screaming at the absurdity of it all.
But the ultimate masterpiece here arrives mid-disc, with “Play Me (Like You Play Your Guitar),” a swamp-funky display that calls to mind Tony Joe White at his lyrical best. Nicholas co-wrote the song with the esteemed songwriter Gary Nicholson, and it revolves around the line “I wish you would play me like you play your guitar.” Enough said. That many great riffs, phrases, and scruffy vocals and guitar in one song, alone confirms this as the comeback album of the year.
– Tom Clarke
- Johnny Nicholas
Release: Sept. 2, 2016