CD review of ‘Fresh Air’ – Welcome back, Johnny Nicholas

Johnny Nicholas

Johnny Nicholas portrait by Cybelle Codish

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
    “Fresh Air”
    Sept. 2, 2016

About Tom Clarke

From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 23 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos.Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage.Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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