Nick Moss is a BIG Man. Not just physically. He’s a huge spirit, a reservoir of wit and humor, harbors an enormous love of the blues tradition. On top of that a prodigious talent with guitar to go along with a grizzly bear voice that fills the room. When you add world class harp player Dennis Gruenling to a backing band as fine as you can find, you end up with a concoction that had local blues fans salivating when Moss and company descended on The Hook and Ladder Theater Thursday night.
I am a bit torn trying to decide how to best share what took place over the two hours that the band graced the stage. Does one describe blow by blow the wide-ranging styles displayed and delivered? This is indisputably a world class band as evidenced by the nearly 40 BMA nominations Moss and Gruenling have garnered. Or does one take a bigger step back and try to encapsulate what Moss is and what he brought to town?
Start with the fact that Moss and Gruenling filled those two hours with only 10 songs. Part of that is that each song was given plenty of room to move and afforded each band member the chance to improvise and contribute. Part of it was Moss being Moss. He is a master story teller and raconteur in the tradition of the great Chicago Blues front men. He engages with the fans; it’s a party and he is host. One minute he is telling jokes or making fun of Gruenling’s penchant for over the top, endangered big cat print jackets (he was sure last night’s edition was neither leopard or cheetah and speculated it might have been civet cat, renowned for eating the beans of the world’s most expensive coffee before passing them through its digestive track wherein they are dutifully collected and roasted by dedicated fans who follow in the cat’s wake to pick up pieces of liquid gold). And in the next minute he’s sharing stories of those early bluesmen who gave him his chance and paved the road he travels.
Bottom line is that you could spend a night just listening to Moss play the blues. Or you could sit in a room and hear his stories before heading home thinking what a special time you just had. When you receive both we are reminded of what it meant to be a Chicago Blues titan in decades past. From Howlin’ Wolf to Muddy to Albert King to Buddy Guy, these kings commanded an audience. Bigger than life, they were also the living embodiment of all that had gone before them and revered it. Buddy Guy once said: “Blues is just a hand me down thing”. Nick Moss is very much a part of that lineage.
Each of the 9 songs Nick dished out was a treat and showcased straight Chicago Blues shuffles, always just on the back side of the beat to provide that wonderful chugging, tail dragging feel. Or boogie woogie. Or jump blues or finally wrapping up with All Night Diner, the B side of Santo and Johnny’s classic 1959 hit Sleepwalk. Throughout the evening Gruenling took to the microphone and fronted the band.
That missing 10th tune was what great blues is all about. Local stalwarts Jeremy Johnson (guitar) and former Moss drummer Victor Span were in the house and called to the stage. As there was only a single guitar amp on stage, Nick simply handed over his instrument and walked off the stage. Gruenling called an up-tempo boogie in C and the band did what blues musicians do. They jammed, they shared, they listened and locked in. They had a blast. And brought the house down.
For many of us the highlight of the set was an original titled He Walked With Giants. As piano player Taylor Streiff hammered at the keys, my notes simply said: Holy Sh*t! But it wasn’t just the magnitude of the song that made it so powerful. It was the long, rambling, heartfelt introduction provided by Moss. It’s worth the re-telling.
As a kid just getting out of high school in Chicago, derailed from a football career by a hereditary kidney disease, Moss found himself in a small club attending his second blues show. The first (which involved his big brother sneaking him out of the hospital “for a bit of fresh air” and dragging him and his hoses tubes and kidney bags to see Little Charley and The Nightcats) convinced him that all he wanted to do with his life was be a bluesman. On that fated second foray he walked into a small club which contained just an old upright piano and a set of drums. He wondered where the band was.
But when the two players sat down and pounded away he had no idea what he was hearing. However, he knew he dug it. After the show, he introduced himself and made the “mistake” of telling the piano player he was a bass man. He was knocked for a loop when immediately asked if he wanted to play a gig the following Saturday night. He confessed. He’d just bought his first bass and was hoping to learn to play it. The guy nodded and asked again if he wanted the gig. Moss said sure.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. He was awful and embarrassed. When they were done he hung his head and apologized. But rather than being shamed he was told that, if anything, he was sure “enthusiastic”. And when he did hit the right note a couple times he showed feel and had a great sense of the beat.
“I live about 10 minutes from here. Why don’t you come over for a bit? My wife’s asleep so we got to go down to the basement.” With stories of John Wayne Gacy still in the news, Moss was uneasy but went along out of curiosity. What he described in that basement was a museum of original posters and photos, nearly all signed by everybody who was anybody in the blues and jazz world. Many the kind of performers who only the deep blues aficionados could name. There were thousands of 78’s, 45’s and albums. Together they sat and listened from 4am until 10 the next morning. Each track played was duly recorded on a cassette for him. When he left he was handed the cassette and told to listen up, figure this stuff out. “And I’ll see you for the gig next Saturday”.
The man was the legendary Chicago piano player Barrelhouse Chuck who had learned the trade from the likes of Pine Top Perkins, Sunnyland Slim and Little Brother Montgomery. Moss went home and practiced until his fingers bled. He played well that next week and had his first band.
But Chuck was more than just a piano player and mentor. He, too, was a part of that unbroken legacy and cared for Little Brother Montgomery in his waning years. Brother was one of the seminal jazz and blues keyboard guys who toured the world back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. One night in the early 80’s Chuck was heading out for a gig on Michigan Avenue and he could tell Little Brother didn’t want him to leave. So he invited him to come with. After the gig, the two men walked down the now slumbering street and stopped at the corner of Michigan and Adams. The 80-year-old Brother looked up at all the high rises and remarked that despite living his life in Chicago he’d not been on Michigan Avenue since 19 and 47. Chuck rocked back and declared: “But that’s like 35 years!”
The old man smiled and replied: “Last time I stood on this corner, Chuck, I had Fats Waller right here on my left. And Louis Armstrong was on my right. Man, I walked with giants.”
Moss paused in the telling, emotional, shook his head and told the audience that Chuck must have repeated him that story to him a hundred times before he passed away in 2016. He never once thought to tell him he’d heard it before. Because it meant something to Barrelhouse Chuck; it was a part of who he was. Now that same lineage is part of Nick Moss. Even though he’s probably told his story a hundred times it still means something. It explains him.
After all, Blues is just a hand me down thing.