Johnny Nicholas isn’t a complete unknown, but these days he is something of a shadow figure.
The lanky singer and skilled journeyman hung with Rhode Island’s Duke Robillard during the hippie era, worked with Big Walter Horton in the Midwest a decade later, and ultimately wound up in Texas—recording intermittently, getting his twang on with Asleep At The Wheel, and occasionally waltzing towards Cajun country. For the last 20 years, he’s been playing regional gigs and tending to a successful café that he and his wife own in the hill country above Austin.
Future Blues is Nicholas’ first proper release since a nice little buzz rose around the Texas Sheiks session he was part of two years ago. Sharing the vocals with Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin, the sixty-something vet proved how rich his whispered growl actually was, and how deeply the blues resonated within him. That disc is loose and charismatic. The new record is arranged and charismatic, a blend you don’t often find in blues, where over-thinking occasionally squelches vibe. Both of those elements find a way to thrive on these 12 tunes, and because each track proffers a discrete personality (tempo, groove, and style are all well-considered), it becomes the kind of savvy and entertaining date you might get from Delbert McClinton or John Hammond.
Some auras are eerie. “Graveyard Blues” is full of shadows, and “Roads On Fire” feels like a ghost town. Some are romantic. “Mister Moon” wears its heart on its sleeve, but wants to bump and grind, too. There’s even a Dylan tune, usually a fatal error for also-rans like Nicholas. But somehow “Whatever it is you want to keep/You better grab it fast” fits the overall mood of Future Blues quite nicely. Turns out there are very few things that an aw-shucks shuffle beat can’t bolster. —Jim Macnie