October 2016 isn’t just historic for the Cubs winning the World Series. That’s also when the great Chicago guitarist Nick Moss and harmonica hero Dennis Gruenling decided to join musical forces.
The later part of Chicago history is more relevant to Moss, especially because he’s a White Sox fan.
“But it was good to see the Cubs win,” Moss said. “Now they can stop moanin’ and groanin.’ ”
The Nick Moss Band previously included rhythm guitarist and singer Mike Ledbetter, who left to pursue a solo career. Gruenling left Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones about the same time.
“When Mike made his announcement that he was going to move on, it was one of those fortuitous moments because I immediately received a call from Dennis,” Moss said.
“He needed a band to back him up for a William Clarke tribute show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While I was playing, I thought, ‘You know what, man? I haven’t played with a harp player in almost six years and it’s my natural position. I spent most of my career backing up great harp players.”
I like to pay my respect and tribute to my heroes and mentors by showing what I learned from those guys. So a lot of the songs are written in a style or vein of a particular individual.”
That night, they discussed collaborating and going on the road. Gruenling played a number of shows with Moss and Ledbetter, including a Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, upon which Ledbetter publicly announced he was leaving the band.
The two collaborated on a record, “The High Cost of Low Living,” which debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Blues Album chart. Moss and Gruenling wrote most of the songs and there is an Otis Spann cover. It’s a good-time Chicago blues and rock gem. Moss is a classic Chicago player and Gruenling is an old-time rock and roller. Some of the songs touch on West Coast jump blues.
“I’ve never been one to record covers. I like to pay my respect and tribute to my heroes and mentors by showing what I learned from those guys. So a lot of the songs are written in a style or vein of a particular individual.”
The title track, “The High Cost of Low Living,” is an homage to Elmore James and West Side’s slide superstar J.B. Hutto. “Tight Grip on Your Leash” is a nod to Jimmy Rogers, Moss said. Gruenling’s “Count On Me” tastes like a soda fountain Chuck Berry milkshake with a cherry harp on top.
Like so many blues albums nowadays, it has Kid Andersen’s fingerprints. The proprietor of Greaseland Studios in San Jose, Andersen co-produced the album with Moss. It was recorded at Moss’ Rancho de Rhythm. With the blues, even the studios have cool names.
“Kid knows how to get his point across in such a way to make a person comfortable and understand immediately, which is a hard thing to do in the studio. There are egos involved and your confidence level can wain real quickly if something goes bad.
“I don’t know if people know how talented he is. Many people have seen him play guitar and he’s disgusting on guitar. It makes you want to burn your instrument after you see him. But he can also play bass as well as any bass player out there. He can play keyboards as if he’s been playing keyboards his whole life. He can sit on a drum set and play drums as well as most drummers I know. So he knows how to communicate with all the players. It was a great experience, plus Kid is a goofball like me. We get along.”
A bandstand pro since he was a teenager, Moss, 48, has a direct connection to the great Chicago bluesmen. He played bass for Buddy Scott, who had a rack of singles with Scotty and the Rib Tips in the late 1960s. Later, Moss played with West Side’s Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins. Moss was in Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s band when the bandleader and former Muddy Waters’ drummer suggested he switch to guitar. In 2006, Moss broke out on his own and started Nick Moss and the Flip Tops.
“I feel very blessed and lucky to have witnessed a lot of the guys who are no longer with us and, more so, to be accepted by them and be part of their bands and playing on stage with these guys,” Moss said. “There aren’t too many left. I don’t know if I would have learned as much if I hadn’t played with them.”
The deepest blues on the new album is “He Walked with Giants (Ode to Barrelhouse Chuck),” which features Taylor Streiff on piano. Barrelhouse Chuck was a Chicago pianist who died recently at the age of 58. He learned from Blind John Davis, Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery and Pinetop Perkins.
Moss has the an archival knowledge and appreciation of blues and the acumen to perform it authentically. His new collaboration with Gruenling is one to be savored. Don’t miss this show if it comes to your town.
– Tim Parsons
- The Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 19
Where: The Saint, midtown Reno