The notion “Stronger than Strong” can’t begin to describe the intense force of these blues.
“Stronger than Strong” the album, John Nemeth’s 10th studio effort, verifies through 12 livewire cuts that he’s a musical dynamo deserving of a much larger audience.
Music fans deep into the blues are likely familiar with Nemeth, but for everyone else, this album is the ideal the place to start. As a teenager in the 1990s, in the “Muddy potato fields of Idaho” as he’s jokingly referred to his home, John Nemeth was bitten by the blues bug. Now, in this year of all kinds of shit that’s brought on all kinds of blues, Nemeth and his band have crafted an album that lifts the spirits with loose-as-a-goose excitement and a firm grasp on the issues.
They kick off the program of 10 originals and two neat covers with “Come and Take it,” a scampering blues that mixes equal parts Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker into a Hill Country-styled, introductory showcase. Its restraint allows the listener to focus intently on the sharpness of each player. Nemeth bellows his come-hither proposals in a voice of unrestrained emotion, accenting them with peals of harmonica as if a train whistle blaring through the fog.
Nineteen-year-old guitarist John Hay adds unpretentious, fuzzy tones, and bassist Matthew Wilson and drummer Danny Banks drive the beat. Each effortless component adds up to a profound rendering of the blues by a tightly knitted, formidable unit. When they go at it, however, they mesmerize.
For “Fountain of a Man,” they dial the heat up considerably, the fierce propulsion of the song displaying their unusually tight bond. Banks simultaneously hammers and rolls the beat with equal parts fervor and finesse. The Jackie Wilson deep inside Nemeth cries out in release, and his harp playing seems to take on a blazing life of its own. Hay steps up with the first of his many biting, astonishing solos throughout the album, his licks at once Albert King-tough and T-Bone Walker-smooth.
Recorded live off the floor by Scott Bomar at his Electraphonic Studio in Memphis, the retro, real deal feel of it all is nonetheless lush and deep.
“Throw Me in the Water” may best exemplify what Nemeth refers to as “The early East Bay grease sound,” a type of barreling soul that he immersed himself in while in San Francisco in the early 2000s.
But no matter the pace or the style, every one of these songs links together, forming a continuous, gold-plated chain of riveting, soulful blues music. And besides his performance chops, Nemeth writes with uncommon insight and inventiveness. With the persistent “Chain Breaker,” he addresses his perception of racial inequality, and a trailblazer of division, culminating in the repeated refrain, “My love is on the other side, and I know what the hell to do.” In “Bars,” he applies the several meanings of the word to safety, injustice, immigration, social ills, and the American flag. The tender, soulful reading of it belies its stiletto-to-the-heart points.
John Nemeth possesses one of the absolute best, most hair-raising voices — in melody and in message — in the blues world today, and he and his band deliver here in spades. “Stronger Than Strong” should win them armfuls of awards.
- John Nemeth
- ‘Stronger than Strong’
- Label: Memphis Grease Records
- Release: Oct. 16, 2020