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Nick Moss - Chicago Blues. Those two words conjure up the most powerful and evocative images in the entire history of American music. Think smoke-filled taverns on the South or West Side nearly ablaze with tremendous displays of electrified Delta beats from dignitaries named Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and so many more. Imagine sidewalk curbs and street corners on busy Maxwell Street where storied performers like Hound Dog Taylor and Robert Nighthawk wailed the blues for spare change.
Chicago Blues is now also synonymous with guitarist Nick Moss. Though the golden era of Chicago Blues is long past with many of its key players deceased or retired, this young Chicagoan stands tallest in the current generation of blues performers that honor the letter and spirit of the great urban African-American music. No less than Jimmy Rogers saw Nick as a protégé, a torchbearer, and a colleague. Leading Chicago-style guitarist Buddy Guy sanctions his talent: “Nick Moss is one of the local favorites at my club, Legends. I always enjoy the way he plays and works hard to please our audience.” Noted Chicago-based music journalist Bill Dahl, never one for gratuitous praise, has raved over Nick’s guitar playing, saying he possesses “mastery of the classic Chicago sound,” while acclaimed blues producer Dick Shurman numbers himself among Nick’s ever-growing legion of admirers, calling his Windy City neighbor “an increasingly centered artist who can rightly be called a master.”
A musician of consummate skill, Nick fully understands the debt he owes his predecessors and how important it is to carry on tradition in an honorable fashion. “I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel,” he says with characteristic modesty, “or trying to bring things into the new millennia. I’m just playing what was handed down to me and do it justice. I have a lot of respect for the guys who taught it to me—I played with Jimmy Dawkins, I played with Willie Smith, I played with Jimmy Rogers—and in my heart I love [this music] and I don’t feel it has to be changed much.”
Passionate blues fans around the country gravitate to Nick’s playing in live performance and on recordings because of that stylistic link to the Chicago Blues past. But Nick’s music also holds enormous appeal for casual fans of blues and even novices. “I’m trying to find that fine line of not compromising the integrity of that classic music,” he says, “and yet still make it a little fresher-sounding and contemporary-sounding where I can get across to the element of the crowd that isn’t hard-core.”
To his credit, Nick’s no imitator. He has his own distinct voice on the guitar, what all musicians in all genres strive for yet very few achieve. “I’ve listened to just about every blues guitar player from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, especially the Chicago guys, and tried to take in all of it,” he offers, “but I don’t consider myself a note-to-note copier. I absorbed their style and feel and timing. I try to listen and capture the essence of what they were doing.”
For Nick Moss, the rise to the top tier of blues musicians out of Chicago had its beginnings right in his boyhood home. “If it wasn’t for my brother Joe I wouldn’t be playing. I used to watch him play guitar growing up, and still today he’s one of my favorite guitarists, a musician’s musician, playing blues, jazz, funk, soul, and rock. He pointed me in the right direction.” Too young for legal admission into clubs, aspiring teenaged blues man Nick literally sneaked into local blues dens and soaked up the classic ensemble sound played by the venerable elders. “My first influence was Jimmy Dawkins because he gave me my first real gig playing bass for him. I just happened to be at a blues jam when I found out he needed a bass player. I really didn’t know who the guy was. I found out how heavy he was after I started playing with him and doing research.” How heavy? Dawkins was one of the true stars of electric blues in the ’70s, an acclaimed star in Europe but always criminally undervalued in the States.
Nick’s schooling began in earnest when he hooked up with the Muddy Waters-styled Legendary Blues Band that featured Muddy Waters Blues Band alumnus Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums. “That was one of my favorite bands,” he recalls. “I still love Willie. He is like my second father. He basically taught me two things: 1) to take pride in myself right now, and 2) the timing and feel of blues, how it’s suppose to be.” The next deep-blues learning period for Nick, who’d switched over from bass to guitar, was in the employ of Jimmy Rogers for three years in the mid-’90s. From this major figure in the story of blues he learned all about the special ensemble sound of authentic Chicago Blues, coming to understand the importance of listening closely to and reacting to his fellow players on the bandstand. “Listen to early Muddy Waters stuff with Jimmy and Otis Spann and Little Walter,” says Nick of the original model. “It almost sounds as if they’re playing on top of each other, but they’re staying out of each other’s way. It almost sounds like they’re all soloing at the same time.” When he wasn’t performing as second guitarist for Rogers or listening to his mentor regale him with story after story, Nick kept busy listening hard to the recorded work of other Chicago Blues players, among them Louis Myers, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Earl Hooker and Johnny Littlejohn.
With his blues graduate studies completed by the late-’90s, Moss
started fronting his own band, The Flip Tops. Their first album, First
Offense, was followed by second effort Got a New Plan in 2001 and then
two years later a third album, Count Your Blessings—the latter two
received W. C. Handy Award nominations, all bear the imprint of Nick and
Kate Moss’s Blue Bella Records label. (Not incidentally, Count Your
Blessings included ace contributions by several of his famous friends,
among them Sam Myers,
and Lynwood Slim.) June 2005 saw the release of fourth album Sadie Mae,
named after his beautiful baby daughter. Among the 16 tracks on the
latest release are his wise and heartfelt interpretations of Jimmy
Rogers’ “Crazy Woman Blues,” Earl Hooker’s “You Got To Lose” and
Lefty Dizz’s “If I Could Get My Hands On You.” Nick says of his growing
discography, “I think slowly but surely with each CD I’ve grown a little
bit more confident in the ability to add the contemporary element. If
people go back and listen to all four of the CDs, they’d see a growth
with each disc of more contemporary elements. My first album is
straight-up ’50s-style blues, and the next two are a really good mix [of
classic and contemporary blues styles of the ’60s and ’70s]. Sadie Mae
is a clearer picture of what we do live.” The release was nominated for
two 2006 Blues Music Awards: Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues
Album of the Year.
Fresh from the nominations and an electrifying live performance at the 2007 Blues Music Awards ceremony, Nick Moss & the Flip Tops are following up the Live release with an amazing two-CD set of Chicago Blues showcasing not only the band’s incredible talents as performers and songwriters, but also their tremendous versatility. In addition to Nick Moss on guitar and vocals, Play It Til Tomorrow (released Oct 9) features Willie Oshawny on keyboards (who also switches over to bass on four tracks and second guitar on another) and Gerry Hundt on harp and vocals (who also plays bass, rhythm guitar and mandolin on the album). Special guest Eddie Taylor, Jr joins the masterful lineup on several selections, as does Barrelhouse Chuck (for one track on Program Two).
The first disc of the double CD set features the band at their most
rollicking Chicago Blues sound, with some killer originals wrapped
around three cover songs: Floyd
Jones’ “Rising Wind,” Luther “Snake”
Johnson’s “Woman Don’t Lie” and Lefty Dizz’s “Bad Avenue.” The
revelation for many people in this package will be the second disc,
which mostly unveils
Nick Moss and his Flip Tops sizzle in live performance hundreds of times a year, bringing their superior blues to clubs from Cape Cod all the way west to southern California with countless stops in between. Festival appearances abound each summer and fall, and stops overseas have become more frequent with each passing year. Back home, Nick considers Buddy Guy’s Legends as his favorite haunt, due in part to the great support Guy has shown him over the years.
Nick Moss knows he has something special happening. “I feel like I’m
one of the only bands from Chicago that’s actually still playing Chicago Blues the way people think of Chicago Blues. I’ve gotten [praise] from a
lot of the old-timers that have seen us play, even guys that are not
from Chicago like Kim Wilson,
Rod Piazza, and Charlie Baty and
Estrin of Little Charlie & the Nightcats. [They say] it’s great to see
there’s actually a band from Chicago that actually plays Chicago Blues.”
No question about it.