A rolling stone gathers no moss, but, with his new CD, Nick Moss picks up Chicago blues and moves it forward upon a new path.
“Time Ain’t Free,” Nick Moss’ 10th album, PURCHASE is a departure from earlier recordings, but its foundation is built from lessons he learned from the masters.
“Some people might say you’re not really playing blues anymore,” Moss said. “My answer to that is, ‘No matter what I play, it’s going to be blues because of how I learned. I can’t play anything but blues.”
A Chicago native, Moss apprenticed with Jimmy Dawkins, Jimmy Rogers and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith before he became bandleader of Nick Moss and the Flip Tops. His first several records were unadulterated Chicago-style blues.
“After my seventh CD, I made a conscious effort to change things up and see if I could do something different,” Moss told Tahoe Onstage. “ ‘Privileged’ was a complete departure from the previous seven CDs.”
That album included some British blues delivery in the vein of Cream and Led Zeppelin, along with ZZ Top. The evolution continued with the ninth album, “Here I Am,” nominated in 2013 for Rock Blues Album of the Year by the Blues Music Awards.
“Here I Am” includes the newest member of the now-called Nick Moss Band.
While Moss was mentored by blues greats, blues royalty is in Michael Ledbetter’s blood. He is a descendent Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, whose 12-string picking technique was utilized by folk icon Pete Seeger.
Michael Ledbetter’s grandmother told him what she knew about Led Belly after he became interested in the blues. Ancestory.com confirmed his lineage to the bluesman who died in 1949. But Michael Ledbetter’s early career wasn’t in blues. He worked eight years singing opera.
“Blues is a far cry from opera, but if you really sit down and think about it, what transfers over is the passion you have to have to sing either one of those genres correctly,” Moss said. “If you don’t have passion as an opera singer, you are just going to fall into obscurity.”
Kate Moss, Nick’s wife, first saw Ledbetter, who was playing with a cover band called the Cue Balls. The Moss family and Ledbetter both live in the ‘Burbs,” a town outside of Chicago, Elgin.
‘A couple of weeks later I was playing in Chicago at Rosa’s and he showed up,” Moss said. “I’ve learned over the years to lower my expectations, but when he got up and did a tune, within two chords it was like, ‘Holy fuck! Where did this kid come from?’ I let him do the song and said, ‘Now get the fuck off my stage, this is my show.’ ”
Ledbetter would learn to identify Moss’ humor, but he was thrown off after he was invited to sing backup vocals for the “Here I Am” sessions.
“The very first song, he knocked it out of the park,” Moss said. “Second song, knocked out of the park. By the time the fourth song came around I was looking at the engineer in the vocals booth. I said there’s no fucking way I will ever be able to do these songs live unless I take this kid on the road with me. He made them so great, I don’t want to play them unless they sound like this.”
Ledbetter was surprised by Moss’ tone when he entered the control room.
“Hey man, you just fucked up my whole recording,” Moss said.
“Because now I gotta hire you,” Moss said. “You’ve got to come with me.”
Ledbetter said he had waited for such an opportunity his entire life.
“One of the first things I learned about Nick is that he definitely knows how to mess with somebody,” Ledbetter said. “This time he had a completely different manner. I was so used to him joking.”
The addition of Ledbetter allows the Nick Moss Band to better emulate the Chicago sound in its own way. Muddy Waters, of course, was supported by a large band.
“I’ve always liked sound of a bigger band,” Moss said. “Mike could already play guitar. Could teach rhythm on songs he’s not singing. Not that hard of a decision. I like sound of a big band. I played with Jimmy Rogers band, just the power of that big sound coming off the stage.”
Ledbetter wrote four of the 14 tracks on “Time Ain’t Free,” and sings on six. Moss and Ledbetter have a similar songwriting methodology, and on some of the songs have Ledbetter’s lyrics on top of Moss’ grooves.
With two lead singers, the album, again, is a departure from Moss’ earlier work. Each voice is distinct, but very complimentary of each other, and not a distraction.
The album also provides a taste of the band’s live show, which both players taking turns at singing lead. A calendar-packed tour after the release of the new album means both singers need to take a care of their voices.
“My training in opera definitely helps with my vocal heath,” Ledbetter said. “I try to keep my voice as healthy as I can. I sing a lot of high notes in the night; I pride myself on having a pretty good range. It helps on long runs of 10 days of straight shows and a lot of guys, their voices are gone by the seventh day but I can keep going because I know the mechanics of the voice.”
Moss doesn’t use all his metaphors in his songs.
“I have a knack for calling out many tunes in a row where Michael has to hit high notes,” Moss said. “Let’s just say when you are driving and you’ve got a muscle car. You want to floor it for while. You know the engine’s overheating but you know you can get a little bit more out of it.”
Better to keep moving. Afterall, “Time Ain’t Free.”
The Nick Moss Band
Album: “Time Ain’t Free,” Blue Bella Records, PURCHASE
Performance: 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 6 in the Crazy Horse Saloon, 230 Commercial St., Nevada City, Calif.; $7 cover; phone 530-265-4000