Originally published on KDHX.org
Listening to the flashback blues of John Nemeth calls to mind dark alleyways and a half-pack of cigarettes, wrong turns with the wrong women. But if you’re listening to his tunes, at least you know you’re doing one thing right.
Traditionally a blues harmonicist who started his trade in his early teens, Nemeth grew up on stage, performing close to seven days a week for nearly a decade before backing Junior Watson and forming his own touring band. Normally, we don’t tend to think of harp players as being front and center of a group, but Nemeth is quickly becoming his own figurehead in blues circles, having been nominated in 2013 for a record breaking 5 Blues Music Awards. And you can hear why when you listen to these three tracks recorded exclusively for KDHX.
“Used to call me Lucky,” Nemeth belts out in “Bad Luck Is My Name,” a traditional, albeit original composition that is set to become a new standard. However, at the thought of him winning 2014’s “Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year Award,” you’re not listening to someone with a pocketful of good fortune. The man’s got a songwriter’s pipes and a harp player’s tasteful blues mentality. Nothing is overwrought and nothing is overshadowed here.
In “Testify,” the track calls forth something Memphis-inspired: stripped-down, church music, ala Al Green, minus the high-pierced, cat-calling vocals. But he still knows how to put the feeling down on paper. No flash of the harmonica here; Nemeth sings softly beneath choir-laden harmonies floating eloquently nearby while his legendary backing band helps plead his case.
Nemeth is at his best in “Sooner or Later,” a happy-go-lucky romp in learning lessons the hard way, complete with low-end backing vocals and some serious reckoning that “every fool is gonna get their turn.” The track is more soul than sorrow, and that works well for the band as a whole. It’s a good direction for Nemeth, whose feel is just as comfortable in old-school soul as anything he’s done so far with old-school blues, his first love.
He’s doing great work preserving one of the best musical forms of the 20th century. But don’t think you’ll find him one day in a museum; he’s best experienced in a smoky juke joint, on a dark road somewhere, just south of heaven.