Soul-blues singer John Nemeth spent the latter part of the 2000s as part of the deep and talented Blind Pig Records roster, releasing three increasingly excellent albums for the label that earned the artist four Blues Music Award nominations. Nemeth is no stranger to the "do it yourself" aesthetic, however, the singer originally making a name for himself with a pair of self-produced albums.
It really comes as no surprise that Nemeth's first live recording would actually be a pair of albums released on the singer's own independent label. Featuring better than two-dozen tracks recorded during three live performances in February 2012, Nemeth has divided the material into two distinctive sets – Soul Live and Blues Live – the two albums covering both sides of the singer's artistic temperament. Nemeth is an explosive performer who is more at home on the stage than in the studio, and he and his merry band of road warriors chalk up umpteen-hundred shows annually. Thus, the two different album releases make perfect sense, offering fans and newcomers alike a solid representation of the singer's complete sound.
John Nemeth's Soul Live
Soul Live draws heavily from Nemeth's 2010 album Name The Day!, featuring five songs from that disc among its twelve, including the title track. However, Soul Live kicks off with the delightful "Blue Broadway," from 2007's Magic Touch, Nemeth's vocals flying high above a fluid groove, the singer channeling his inner soul man as guitarist Kid Andersen adds a few Steve Cropper-styled hot licks to the performance. It's a warm-up track, of sorts, for the following "Love Me Tonight" from the 2009 album of that title, the song a muscular R&B rave-up with driving rhythms, punchy fretwork, and Nemeth's explosive vocals riding high above the mix, the singer moaning, pleading, hoping for that sweet love he craves.
"Said Too Much" is more of an old-school torch-song, the sort of slow-paced emotional jackhammer that Otis Redding built a career with. While Nemeth makes no pretense of challenging the late King of Soul for his crown, his tearful performance here certainly displays its love of Otis on its sleeve, Nemeth knocking out the vocals alongside Andersen's pitch-perfect guitar and John Lee Sanders' reverent keyboard riffs. At the other end of the spectrum, rocking to and fro, is Nemeth's "Magic Touch," an up-tempo barn-burner with rockabilly roots and a Chicago blues heartbeat. Bassist Tommy Folen and drummer Nick Fishman lay down a locomotive rhythms on top of which the guitarists – some combination of Andersen, A.C. Myles, and/or Bob Welsh – light up the stage with a flurry of wiry, highly-combustible notes.
From Love Me Tonight, "Fuel For Your Fire" is another R&B gem, a mid-tempo heartbreaker with scraps of elegant guitarplay and vocals that remind of the late, great Solomon Burke. Nemeth breaks out the harmonica here, adding some lively harp blasts for punctuation. The funky, slippery groove of "Name The Day" belies the song's emotional interplay, Nemeth's hearty vocals riding a wave of throwback rhythms and solid rhythm guitar. Although Soul Live doesn't offer up many cover tunes, relying instead on Nemeth's skilled pen, the singer's take on Otis Blackwell's "Home In Your Heart," covered by everybody from Redding and Burke to Derek Trucks through the years, sounds all the world like it was recorded in 1965 and not 2012. Nemeth's vocals here are soul-tuff, and his flailing harp delivers just enough, roaring above a jaunty groove with lively fretwork twanging-and-banging throughout the mix.
John Nemeth's Blues Live
By contrast, Nemeth's Blues Live draws its repertoire primarily from Love Me Tonight, offering five live versions of the album's songs, as well as a couple of pleasant surprises. The album opens with one of those surprises, a blockbuster cover of the Fats Domino hit "Every Night 'bout This Time," taken from Nemeth's 2002 debut disc The Jack of Harps. Nemeth's blistering take on the song skews closer to Luther Allison's cover than to the song's R&B origin, the singer complimenting his low-slung, flamethrower vocals with squeals of icy harp. Nemeth also reprises the well-worn "Mother In Law" (i.e. "Mother In Law Blues") from his debut, his harp trills and walking notes more reminiscent of James Cotton's version than, say Johnny Winter's, hewing closely to the song's bluesy roots.
Nemeth also delves back to his distant past for his cover of "Ain't Too Old," the singer originally recording the song for his self-produced 2004 album Come And Get It. A fine example of West Coast rhythm & blues dating back to the 1950s and several sides produced by Johnny Otis for Dig Records, Nemeth's muted, slightly echoed vocals are accompanied by rich, reckless harp riffs and discordant, blustery guitar. The singer follows with buried treasure in the form of Magic's Sam's "She Belongs To Me," Nemeth's smoky vocals here accompanied by a loose-limbed backing rhythm and funky fretwork that reminds of Chicago's West Side but incorporates a bit more Southern-fried soul into the nimble note-picking.
Nemeth's "Daughter Of The Devil" is a great, vintage-sounding tune from Love Me Tonight that brings a swamp-blues vibe to the singer's muted vocals and the rhythm section's claustrophobic backdrop. Nemeth lays down a bit of nasty, bluesy harp to ride sidecar to Andersen's Delta-dirty guitarplay. Switching gears, "Love Gone Crazy" is a funky soul-blues romp 'n' stomp with a spry rhythm and rhythmic vocals accompanied by tasty harp notes and hot grease guitar licks while "You're An Angel," from Magic Touch, is reminiscent of a late-1950s R&B single with doo-wop overtones to be heard in Nemeth's nuanced vocals. One of the album's few covers is a raucous take on Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down," Nemeth and his talented crew preferring to take the song to Chicago's South side rather than remaining in the Delta.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
While I'm not sure why Nemeth chose to release these two otherwise excellent albums on his own, I'm certainly glad that he took the chance. With Soul Live and Blues Live, the talented singer displays both sides of his raging creative id, drawing upon a decade of his career for his first (two) live recordings. Fans of Nemeth's work for Blind Pig are going to love this stuff, these two discs offering up electrifying, dynamic live versions of the songs from those three previous albums, neatly closing the book on an era and opening the next chapter in the career of this talented singer, songwriter, and harp player. (John Nemeth Music, released August 21, 2012)
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