Veteran blues fans and younger curiosity seekers were the audience for Johnny Nicholas’s first local concert in more than a decade at the Regattabar a week ago Wednesday. The former remember the 1970s nights when Nicholas’s Rhythm Rockers were one of the house bands at Cambridge’s now long-gone Speakeasy, holding court on their own or backing the likes of Chicago harp man Big Walter Horton. The latter have heard about those legendary performances and the guitarist, pianist, songwriter, and bandleader from Westerly, Rhode Island, whose early bands included such New England–bred luminaries as Duke Robillard (now touring with Tom Waits), Ronnie Earl, Fran Christina (the Fabulous Thunderbirds), and pianist David Maxwell.
The performance got off to a rocky start. Despite a week on the road, the band — with respected hornmen Greg Piccolo, Kaz Kazanoff, and Al Gomez plus keyboardist/accordionist Joel Gomez — took a few tunes to jell. And Nicholas proved more of a personable bandleader and MC than a fiery performer in his own right, though he bit into a gritty version of Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used To Do” with guest pianist Maxwell late in the show.
When the ensemble hit their stride, Nicholas turned the affair into an old-fashioned revue. Embracing the roadhouse æsthetic of his adopted home state, Texas, he chose a repertoire heavy on romantic mid-tempo ballads ripe for dancing. Blues, jazz, and Cajun and New Orleans boogaloos formed the stylistic backbone of the set. Piccolo, both Gomezes, and Maxwell took turns leading the group as Nicholas switched between his unhurried guitar and piano.
The night’s blues highlight was Nicholas’ own “Take Me Down in the Alley,” from his recent Big Band Bash! Live (TopCat). A tribute to his late friend the Texas music legend Doug Sahm, it conveyed the warmth of a kinship based on the soulful spirit at the core of good blues. It also reflected the openhearted community that Nicholas apparently aims for at his shows.
: Live Reviews
, Tom Waits, Duke Robillard, David Maxwell, More