The Nick Moss Band, featuring Dennis Gruenling
Nick Moss is from Chicago, and he wants you to know it. “312 Blood,” the opening track of Lucky Guy! the new album from the Nick Moss Band, featuring Dennis Gruenling, makes that absolutely clear. “People in my city are the people I feel,” Moss sings, “I got 312 blood, and you know that’s real.” 312 was Chicago’s original area code, and it is reserved today for the one-and-a-half square mile downtown area known as “the Loop.”
That’s pure Chicago blood.
It makes sense for Moss to start off there. Of all musical forms, none are as tightly linked to geography as the blues. From the earliest days of the Delta blues, it has all been about place – the place you’re leaving, the place you’re going to, and the place where you are. Robert Johnson “went down to the crossroads” and got down on his knees. B.B. King looking for Lucille in the streets of Memphis, Jim Jackson hears that “she done moved to Kansas City.” Bukka White is desperate to get home, but he is serving a sentence “down on Parchman Farm.”
From its roots in the Mississippi Delta, the blues has been on the move for a century, going from one place to the next, on the backs of itinerant singers, following the contours of the Mississippi River and its tributaries along the paths of African-American migration, stopping at roadhouses and juke joints along the way. Sometime in the 1940s, immigrants from the agricultural Deep South, like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy, found their way to the 312. They created something unique to Chicago: a hard-driving, rhythmic, electrified blues style adapted to the nightclubs and halls of an industrial city.
To hear the Chicago blues is to know it’s from Chicago. Moss’s alternatively chunky and searing electric guitar, and Gruenling’s harmonica, overdriven to just-this-side-of-howling, are the essence of Chicago blues. Moss preaches, testifies, cajoles in a voice that channels the spirits of Muddy, Wolf, and Paul Butterfield playing in smoky bars on all but two tracks. The rhythm section of Taylor Streiff on Hammond organ and piano, bassist Rodrigo Mantovani, and Patrick Seals on drums is as solid as any I have heard since Donald “Duck” Dunn laid down the groove for the MGs.
Make no mistake. This is a fucking tight band, and they know the blues the way only someone with 312 blood can know them. There is no mystery why Moss and Gruenling won Blues Music Awards this year for their previous album. The Nick Moss Band is that good.
In fact, they only hit one sour note, and that comes in the second track, a cover of the Johnny O’Neale song “Ugly Woman.” Moss and company do credible work with what is, after all a very slight rhythm and blues standard. In fact, the cover is much more energetic and electric than O’Neale’s original. But in the age of #metoo, when you’d hope that the top proponents of the blues, a genre that gave us Mamie Smith and Big Mamma Thornton, were at least a little conscious of toxic masculinity, it might have been a good idea to give a song that jokes about a woman’s physical appearance and disabilities a pass. It’s the kind of song that might go over at the end of the second set in a club show, but you might not want to commit to tape.
Fortunately, all the other tracks on Lucky Guy! are originals that showcase both Moss’ and Gruenling’s chops and their songwriting skills. Gruenling’s “Movin’ on My Way” is a classic, up-tempo bar-rocker that gives Moss the opportunity to showcase some rockabilly-inflected licks as he trades fours with guest Kid Anderson. It’s the kind of showdown that is made for live performance, and it works so well here that it must have been a live take. “Wait and See,” also by Gruenling, has the groovy, riff-driven vibe of classic British blues from the early 1960s, evoking all the excitement of a young John Mayall or Alexis Korner, but with the confidence of Chicago veterans who have lived the blues for their whole lives.
The best moments on Lucky Guy! come when the band drops everything and just does the blues that they know. “As Good As It Gets,” a stripped-down stomper penned by Moss, actually is almost as good as it gets. Streiff sits this track out, allowing Moss, Gruenling, Mantovani, and Seals to serve up a raw, pulsing, driving blues sound somewhat reminiscent of Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, the outfit that launched Alligator Records almost 50 years ago. The closing track, “The Comet,” is a slow blues that takes that rawness one step further and deeper, with Moss holding down the rhythm on an acoustic guitar and singing in a voice that evokes all the stories of itinerant bluesmen coming up the Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s, “leaving a trail so long and bright,” while guest “Monster” Mike Welch plays a spare, lonesome lead on the electric guitar.
“The Comet” would have been the very best track on the album, probably the best track on any album, except that the Nick Moss Band is at its very best in the minor blues, one of the staples of the Chicago style. “Cutting the Monkey’s Tail” is a mid-tempo, swinging instrumental that sends chills down your spine. Gruenling evokes Chicago Blues legend Junior Wells without ever being mawkishly obvious, and Moss’s restrained tone recalls Buddy Guy. This is where these sons of Chicago really showcase the city in their blood.
But it’s on the minor-key slow blues “Sanctified, Holy, and Hateful” where the band pulls out all the stops in a bitter indictment of fundamentalism and religious hypocrisy. “Who you pray to, vote for, and sleep with/What does it matter?/Why can’t you just be thankful?/Oh man can’t you see? You’re sanctified, you’re holy, and, oh God, you’re hateful.” Bluesmen have been calling out the pretenses of the all-too-holy since the very beginning, of course, but in this era of Christian moralizing and fundamentalist political power, “Sanctified, Holy, and Hateful” packs a particular punch. There have been a few times when the blues has spoken directly to social issues, and this is one of them.
Lucky Guy! might not be the Nick Moss Band’s best album. Last year’s The High Cost of Low Living was just so good that it will take repeated listens for me to decide which is better. But it is a great piece of wax and, to be honest, it would be the capstone of virtually any other band’s career. The blues is alive and living in the 312.