Nick Moss has been a fixture of the Chicago music scene since the early Nineties. He plays regular gigs at Buddy Guy’s Legends, he’s played with Jimmy Rogers and Jimmy Dawkins, and counts Ronnie Earl among his biggest fans. In 1993 he joined The Legendary Blues Band led by Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Nick’s career as a bandleader kicked off with 1998’s First Offense and it’s been building slowly but surely into a proud legacy. This legacy has grown by leaps and bounds with the last few records and in many ways those were building toward the crowning achievement that is Time Ain’t Free.
I don’t know what in the Hell this music is called. It’s got Blues, Boogie, Soul, Gospel, and Rock & Roll. It’s Little Feat, Mavis Staples, Muddy Waters and Booker T. and that’s just in one song. It should be a mess but it’s marvelous. Nick Moss and his band have emptied the pantry and come up with one of the best damned recipes you’ve ever seen. This is musical comfort food. Nick’s records have always carried his influences but with Time Ain’t Free he has finally found the perfect balance. A major added dimension to the music is vocalist and second guitarist Michael Ledbetter.
Michael is a descendant of Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly. He grew up hearing soul singers but at age 15 he decided to become an opera singer. He spent eight years in the Chicago Opera scene before deciding to focus his talents on Blues. The Blues scene and the Nick Moss Band are better for it. Nick moss deserves a lot of credit for inviting this talented young man into his band and slowly giving him a bigger share of the spotlight. I saw the band a few years ago at 2nd Story Blues in Bethlehem, PA and Michael was fairly new to the band. He sang a few songs and did terrific background vocals. After the show he was humble when complimented and was focused on paying his dues. Nick Moss knows all about paying dues and has obviously been a great mentor. Ledbetter sings six tunes on Time Ain’t Free and has or shares writing credit on a few as well. Of these tracks, “Fare Thee Well” is the benchmark by which all others shall be judged. This is a song that brings the whole band together for a glorious moment of aural perfection.
Time Ain’t Free captures your ears with the first raspy slide guitar licks of “She Wants It” and melts your face with album closing instrumental “[Big Mike’s] Sweet Potato Pie.” “Was I Ever Heard” is a rollicking march with swirling keyboards courtesy of Bryan Rogers. Drummer Patrick Seals propels this tune and Nick Moss lets loose torrents of raunchy guitar licks that contrast beautifully with the softness of the chorus and background vocalists Tina J. Crawley and Lara Jenkins. Bryan Rogers keyboards are like the gravy that ties it all together on a lot of these songs. I sure he hope he used a B-3 and not some digital reproduction. The music on Time Ain’t Free is so earthy and rich that I’d be heartbroken if it was infected with fake B-3. It sounds great whatever it is, but it’s the principal of it! I guess I could let it slide since the band covered “Bad ‘N’ Ruin” by the Faces and Mr. Rogers offers up stellar playing that would make the late, great Ian McLagan proud.
The decision to cover a song by the Faces gives you an idea where this band is and where they’re headed. No influence is avoided. Instead, all influences are blended into a distinct Nick Moss Band sound. When Moss solos, he is incandescent. His guitar playing is passionate, poisonous, and proud. His licks in “Been Gone So Long” are illegal in five states, yet in “Fare Thee Well” he uses a cleaner tone, inhabits the groove and releases soul stirring notes to the heavens. The riffs on title track “Time Ain’t Free” are a stuttering jolt of energy and Moss harnesses that energy to fuel his fiery solos.
Time Ain’t Free is a reminder that truly great music is still be made today. While the mainstream is giving accolades to auto-tuned pabulum spewing fashionistas, Nick Moss Band is cranking out honest, gripping music and taking it to the people one town at a time. Don’t waste your time on Celebutantes of Pop or any of the Blues Pretenders to the Throne out there, your Time Ain’t Free and it deserves the real deal.
According to the liner notes, Steve Earle only believes two things about the Blues: they are the common denominator of the human experience, and someday he would make this album. Damn if he wasn’t right on both accounts. Terraplane is that album. Not only can Steve play the Blues, but he can write engaging songs that seamlessly fit into the tapestry started on a plantation over 100 years ago. Arguably the album is named for Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” and ol’ Bob Johnson is named checked on “Tennessee Kid” so it’s no surprise Steve Earle has taken Johnson’s approach to Blues. Johnson melded music from all around into his own distinct sound. You all remember “They’re Red Hot” right? On Terraplane, Earle takes common themes, common patterns, and common words and much like the rest of his catalog, stirs them into something wholly uncommon.
I thought the best thing about a Blues album from Steve Earle would be the utter lack of re-tread lyrics, but the best thing about Terraplane is the sound. It’s a big, wide open sound. The instruments have room to breathe, the guitars get gritty, the drums can be felt coming through the speakers, and Earle’s voice is expertly captured, retaining all the snarl, melancholy, and loss. The feeling of dread is undeniable when he all but whispers the awful truth that “the balance comes due someday” at the end of “Tennessee Kid.” While the lyrics of the songs on Terraplane are sometimes clever and often poignant, there is the seemingly throw-away chorus of “Baby Baby Baby (Baby).” It must be a tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat to classic blues that were more about the feeling conveyed than the actual words. Still the song has one of my favorite lines in “I got a little girl that live way down south, a little town they call ‘shut my mouth’” and it’s a strutting harmonica fueled shuffle that would have sat comfortably between Little Walter and James Cotton at a Muddy Waters show.
Earle was joined in the studio by his faithful compatriots Kelly Looney on bass, Will Rigby on drums, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, and Chris Masterson on guitar. Steve sings of course, and plays harmonica, guitar, and mandolin. Eleanor duets with Steve on “Baby’s Just As Mean As Me” and ups the ante considerably. She has a classic voice for blues, somewhere between Billie Holliday and Lil’ Johnson. Chris Masterson plays beautifully crafted solos and fills. He never over-steps, over-plays, nor over compensates for having no sense of the music. He knows the music and from his guitar work you can tell he feels it. The whole band seems to play like hive mind hell bent on groove. Terraplane is a testament to their collective artistry.
Steve has made a lot of music over the decades and a lot of it has been indefinable even though everyone has tried. But Steve Earle knows the Blues. He knows it isn’t defined by twelve bar shuffles, minor sevenths, never-ending Elmore James slide licks, or blowing through the Blues Box guitar scale as fast as you can. It’s a feeling, and you can’t fake it no matter how hard you try. Over the last eight years or so of writing about blues I’ve seen a lot of bands and heard a landfill full of questionable blues records. There’s a lot of crap out there. If you want to save the Blues, you better start feeling it because without the feeling isn’t worth a good god damn. Maybe the Blues will be saved by aging artists and fans that come to realize they need more authentic music in their lives. Today’s One Direction and Beyonce fans will eventually be 50 and looking for a greater meaning in their world and the music they choose to fill the empty spaces. They may turn to the Blues if it isn’t over-run by self-congratulatory musical masturbators singing “Woke up this morning” between 100 bars of speed exercises. Steve Earle knows all this. He’s known it for a long time. Steve has lived the blues. He’s fought demons inside and demons in Nashville. He’s had everything and he’s had nothing. He’s had the blues and he’s always made music with hints of blues. He writes honest songs. He’s not pretentious but he isn’t afraid to step up on the soapbox either. He’s me and you and we all have the Blues. With Terraplane he’s put those Blues together in one record. With an eye to the past put rooted firmly in the present, Steve Earle has offered an authentic document that defies description and pigeonholes, but is quite obviously blue. I knew Steve Earle wouldn’t let us down.
Flying in under the radar recently is a new release on Rock Beat Records that features a live set recorded in 1997 during one of many in a series of Blues Unplugged show at Cal State University Long Beach. The shows were put together by KLON program director Gary Chiachi who had been involved in the Long Beach Blues Festival. On this particular night in 1997, founding member of The Blasters and CSULB alum, Dave Alvin was on the bill along with Blues luminaries Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Billy Boy Arnold, and Joe Louis Walker. Dave Alvin may not be the first name that pops into your head when you think Blues Unplugged but in this setting, Alvin’s blues roots come to the surface and crack every sidewalk in town.
Last year Dave and his brother Phil released Common Ground, an album of Big Bill Broonzy tunes, so it is not surprising that Dave covered a Big Bill Broonzy song on that night long ago. “Tell Me How You Want It Done” also turned up on Common Ground but here it is stripped down to just Dave and his guitar. Dave quips to the audience that it’s a guitar song he’s never managed to play correctly all the way through. He does a damned fine job though and his earnestness comes through. Even before the days of The Blasters, Dave and his brother Phil would follow blues musicians around and talk their way into the gigs. They spent a great deal of time with Big Joe Turner who Dave calls “maybe the greatest human who ever lived” as he introduces “Chains Of Love.” Dave puts all his heart and soul into this sublime version of the tune. Dave ends his set with a slow, earthy version of The Blasters tune “Long White Cadillac.”
As good as Dave Alvin’s set is, the magic really starts with the collaborations. First up, Dave joins Billy Boy Arnold on a chugging Bo Diddley style number called “I Wish You Would” that Arnold actually wrote back when he was playing with Bo Diddley in the 50’s. This is a veritable classic, with a great hook that hangs around long after the tune is over. This stripped version is a little slower, but Arnold’s harp howls and moans over Dave’s rhythm that rolls on steady like a southbound train. When Dave joins Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, they play an impromptu tribute to such a train, the “Wabash Cannonball.” According to Brown, Dave didn’t even know they were going to do that tune prompting Gate to say “man this guy’s great.. I pulled that one out, he didn’t know I was gonna do it!” Gate’s fiddle and Dave’s guitar combine for two minutes of train-hopping hobo blues that ends all too soon. Leave it to Gatemouth Brown to whip out “Beer Barrel Polka” at a Blues show and play it in a Hillbilly fashion on a fiddle. He takes a few moments to tell Dave how they’ll be playing it and ten away they go. Dave’s strumming is percussive and steady as Gate fiddle’s fiery and furiously, better than any kid in Georgia giving the Devil the business. Johnny, when you’re done bring that fiddle made of gold over to Gate’s house. It’s his.
The disc ends with Billy Boy Arnold, Joe Louis Walker, Gatemouth Brown, and Dave Alvin playing a pair of tunes. Oddly, the back cover leaves gate out of the credits for the last two tracks, but he is mentioned in the liner notes and by the MC on the disc. The first tune is a loose jam that ended up named “Long Beach Blues.” Obviously impromptu, its cohesion is a testament to the language of the Blues and the ability of the performers to converse musically. For guitar enthusiasts this jam is the go-to track on here. Walker blazes on slide, Dave rips out some fiery licks he became famous for in the Blasters and Gate trades his fiddle for his guitar and rips it up with the boys. This is a blues jam the fans always hope for but rarely get. It is off the cuff and brilliant with guys who never played together, listening to each other, playing for fun, and having a great time. The set ends with Gatemouth Brown’s “It’s A Long Way Home.” The song recalls Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway” and the wide open feel provides a perfect close of this meeting of journeymen. For me, these last two tracks with all four musicians makes this set worth the price of admission. Live In Long Beach 1997 is a rare time capsule of an authentic Blues jam between masters of the form who leave their egos at the door and just have a good time playing honest, satisfying music. Don’t let this one pass you by.