A FEW MINUTES WITH… John Nemeth
By Don Wilcock
White soul singer and chromatic harp master John Nemeth plays the Upper Room in Albany on Saturday night (February 17) with his current band, the Blue Dreamers. With 16 Blues Music Awards and two Blues Blast Awards to his credit, Nemeth is touring on his 2017 album Feelin’ Freaky, produced by Luther Dickinson at his Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Mississippi. The album comes three years after his previous CD, Memphis Grease, recorded with Memphis soul band The Bo-Keys.
Sly & the Family Stone, Prince and now John Nemeth each had a way of being cool that was unrelated to the conventions of the form or the personalities that preceded them and defined funk, soul and Memphis grease (the name of Nemeth’s indie label, by the way). Nemeth has an advanced sense of self and a strong creative ability matched by his band. Drummer Danny Banks has been singing John Nemeth songs in previous bands and can read his moves like a twin brother. Matthew Wilson, who played bass on Feelin’ Freaky, has moved over to guitar. Replacing him on bass is Blake Rhea, a 42-year-old Memphis musician steeped in the southern sound.
Nemeth is excited about this tour. He’s been off the road for several months, and Albany is the third stop on a tour unencumbered by the craziness that accompanies promoting a new album. In a rambling interview he described a typical road tour where each band member disappears into their own earphones listening to their private music. These guys all listen to music together, and they create a sound that builds organically from the melody up. Nemeth calls it living on the edge. Some bands “cheat” and build songs that lift sections from familiar blues classics, combining music lifted from here and there, almost like a dance DJ. “It’s an awesome feeling to have a band that can create an original song from the bottom to the top,” says Nemeth.
Like life itself, Nemeth’s songs on Feelin’ Freaky have humor, pathos and melodies that reflect his regional influences. He grew up in Boise, Idaho where his first paid gig was for a Catholic Daughters of America pinochle luncheon, at the age of 16. He’s always believed in multi-tasking even in his only two “legitimate” day jobs. Kentucky Fried Chicken put him in the kitchen as a youngster. “They wouldn’t put me out front with the customers, are you kidding me?” He just couldn’t stop singing. Got fired twice! And the only reason they gave him a second chance was because his sister was the KFC manager’s best friend.
His other day job was driving truck. “I’d be playing the harmonica and steering with my elbows. Enough folks had seen me driving like that (that) I didn’t last too long at that job, either.”
Twentysome years later, he lives in Memphis after a stint in San Francisco. He told American Blues Scene’s Stacy Jeffers in October, “In show business, if you’ve been recognized for something you’ve done, you’re taking a big risk to do something different. Look at George Jones; he had the same haircut for decades. I like to experiment. I think every record I’ve ever made has been a departure from the last one. But definitely, elements from the last one show up here and there. I don’t KNOW if there’s any pattern to it.”
Don Cornelius would be smiling broadly through his round dark glasses and playing Nemeth’s “Get Offer Dat Butt” from Feelin’ Freaky to cork screw dancers on “Soul Train” if we all could get into the Way Back machine.
There’s a flatlander’s light ‘n’ breezy feel to much of his current repertoire – light hearted and frisky on one hand and Robert Cray smooth on the other. “You Really Do Want That Woman” is more about daddy Jim Dickinson than son Luther, unfettered happy dancing in his pj’s, but with a very mature experienced feel about the party. The kind of unselfconscious abandon that comes from a maturity based on a devil-may-care, don’t-give-a-fig attitude.
“S.T.O.N.E.D.” may be the most honest and accurate argument for the legalization of pot ever recorded. Memphis soul meets flatlander funk that’s water-cooler cool, sometimes funny, always funky.
“Gave Up on You” is delivered with his Robert Cray smoothie voice, while “I’m Funkin’ Out” features John’s patented chromatic harp work inspired by one of his earliest influences, Junior Wells. On “Kool-Aid Pickle” (graphically featured in phallic redness on the white cover of the Feelin’ Freaky CD) he sings, “She’s crunchin’, she’s suckin’, she’s smackin’ her lips.” Yes, Junior Wells would have loved covering that song. On the other extreme is “Long Black Cadillac” about losing his baby when “The Lord came to call, and that was all.” The way Nemeth plays his harp against Memphis players Marc Franklin (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Art Edmaiston (Tenor, Bari sax) is a classic sound, all his own.