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Buddy Guy’s Legends
April 26, 2009
By Linda Cain
Photos by: Jennifer Wheeler
It only happens about once every other decade -- a fresh young talent, whose star power can’t be denied, comes along to take the blues by storm. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray did it in the ‘80s. John Nemeth could be the next young blues star to do it in the new millennium. No doubt about it, he’s got it all: the outstanding voice, the musical prowess, the charismatic showmanship, the sharp-dressed good looks and the catchy original material – all of the key ingredients required for ascendancy to crossover appeal.
Like the title of his irresistible new song (that dares you to not sing along on the chorus), the 31-year-old harp blower sounds “Too Good To Be True.”
And like a magnet, Nemeth pulled in some major talent -- none other than famed guitarists Elvin Bishop, Junior Watson and Anson Funderburgh -- to assist in the studio for his two critically-acclaimed CDs on the Blind Pig label: 2007’s Magic Touch and his 2009 release Love Me Tonight. Piano, organ, acoustic bass and a Memphis style horn section round out Nemeth’s soulful vocals and harmonica on his discs.
On the road, Nemeth travels with only a trio of guitar, bass and drums. But what a trio! The pitch perfect tenor clearly doesn’t need the extra help he got in the studio, when he takes to the stage, with these talented cats to back him – guitarist Bobby Welsh, drummer Nick Fishman and bassist Smokey Davis. Welsh, who played on Love Me Tonight, is a highly inventive and skilled young guitarist who is well-versed in retro styles and guitar effects.
Indeed such talent is the stuff of myth, but the San Francisco-based singer/songwriter proved to be flesh and blood as he took the stage at Legends on a Sunday eve in April. Even the club’s owner couldn’t resist the charms of Nemeth and his dynamic trio, as Buddy Guy himself joined them during the second set.
Nemeth keeps alive the spirit of the blues masters while adding his own “Magic Touch” to the genre. A second generation Hungarian-American who grew up in Boise, Idaho, the unlikely young bluesman seems to possess an old soul. His original songs groove like familiar blues and R&B classics from the ‘50s and ‘60s but with a fresh new twist.
Performing the title track of his Blind Pig debut (Magic Touch), Nemeth and band shook the stage, as the singer wailed on his harp, dipped the mic stand like a dance partner and shook his leg in Elvis fashion to the band’s upbeat, danceable rhythms. Guitarist Bobby Welsh dropped to one knee to play a rapid fire guitar solo that ventured between genres, from blues, to surf-rock, to rockabilly, in a matter of moments. The Legends crowd cheered its approval.
The band switched gears to lowdown Chicago blues with “Daughter of the Devil.” Nemeth prowled about the stage as he howled and pleaded like a hell hound was on his trail. He hovered over the monitors at the stage’s edge while his harp wailed in response.
The mood again shifted, this time to romance with “She’s My Heart’s Desire,” on which Nemeth sounded Sam Cooke smooth, hitting some impossibly high notes with his wonderfully versatile voice. Welsh contributed to the mood with a heartfelt guitar solo on this knockout cover of the Falcon’s hit from the ‘50s.
“Too Good To Be True,” with its bouncy, Caribbean-like rhythms, had the audience bopping in their chairs and reflexively singing along on the catchy chorus. Welsh’s incredibly fast country-ish picking was icing on the cake.
“Love Gone Crazy” featured Nemeth’s breathtaking, emotion-packed harp solo, proving that he’s got the lung power and the chops equal to the many Chicago harmonica heroes who have preceded him on the Legends stage.
Yet even a formidable young showman such as Mr. Nemeth can be upstaged.
Always a champion of young blues talent, Buddy Guy couldn’t resist getting on stage to sit in with these impressive young cats. The blues legend downed a shot of his requisite cognac in order to jumpstart his musical engine. That got him in the mood to sing “Champagne and Reefer” (by mentor Muddy Waters) while Nemeth and band quietly backed him, relinquishing the spotlight to the club’s namesake. “Gimme champagne when I’m thois-ty/ Gimme reefer when I wants ta git high,” Buddy sang, with his arms flapping at his side, his eyes bugged out and a huge mischievous grin across his animated face. He started into “She’s 19 Years Old,” but stopped after two verses, said “thank you” and exited the stage, in his usual unpredictable fashion. More likely, he didn’t wish to steal any more thunder from the headliner, which still had plenty of rumble in store to take the club to closing time.
Listen to John Nemeth and you can’t help but hear snippets of other late great artists, who influenced his musical and vocal style -- everyone from Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Ward, Tampa Red, Magic Sam, Little Johnny Taylor, Junior Wells, Slim Harpo, Little Walter and more.
His songwriting, however, is ultra-hip and contemporary with universal themes that resonate through the ages. Nemeth’s original songs are classics in the making. For the sorrowful, “My Troubled Mind,” the tunesmith penned these clever lyrics: “I’ll be in my own bed/ When I straighten out my head/ I’ll need time to meditate/ Or self-medicate/ My broken heart/And my troubled mind.”
The bottom line : Don’t miss this amazing performer when he comes to your town and buy his CDs. You’ll listen repeatedly and they’ll never grow old.