When John Nemeth reappeared at Lake Tahoe he was soaked in “Memphis Grease.”
“My name is John Nemeth,” the singer coyly announced at the start of a June 23 performance at Bluesdays in the Village at Squaw Valley.
“We miss you, John,” a concertgoer shouted. “And I miss you, too,” Nemeth replied.
A native of Boise, Idaho, Nemeth lived for about a decade in Oakland and San Francisco when he played two or three times a year around Tahoe and Reno. He hadn’t been back since he moved to Memphis in January 2013, although it feels like it’s been longer.
Since his first appearances in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room, Nemeth has always displayed a great voice and harmonica musicianship, delivered with plenty of self-confidence, candor and humor. But he’s more polished now and this is his tightest band, the Blue Dreamers. (Danny Banks, drums; Matthew Wilson, bass and guitar; Johnny Rhoades on guitar. All three sing harmonies.)
Before the show Nemeth told me, “The culture (of Memphis) is cool and the musical influence, whether it’s blues or not, the bands have that certain sound and feel that they all have down there.”
That sound and feel have rubbed off on Nemeth. I’d never thought of Otis Redding and Stax Records and Nemeth having a similar flavor until “Memphis Grease” was released. The album beat out Robert Cray, Bobby Rush and Otis Clay-Johnny Rawls at the Blues Music Awards for 2015’s Best Soul Blues Album. Recorded on tape and produced by Scott Bomar who played along with his band the Bo-Keys, “Memphis Grease” is technically the best sounding album the prolific Nemeth has released. The songwriting is great, too, and Nemeth even audaciously and magnificently covered “Crying,” the song Roy Orbison made famous.
Nemeth at Bluesdays played several of the tunes from his new album, including two of the radio hits, “If it Ain’t Broke” and “My Baby’s Gone” and the autobiographic “Elbows on the Wheel” — “Elbows on the wheel, harp in my hands/I am playing Junior’s ‘Hoodoo Man’ ”
Like a skilled guitarist such as Carlos Santana or Tinsley Ellis, Nemeth employs a tremendous amount notes without showing off. He has the vocal range to show off like an “American Idol” contestant or a singer who tries to gain attention with a histrionic rendition of the national anthem before a ballgame. But he won’t. The song is more important than the star.
Just as impressive was Nemeth’s cadence. He no longer asks the crowd if they want a dance tune or a slower ballad. He slowed it down plenty of times at Squaw Valley and it only enhanced the presentation.
The harmonica work was tasteful and it enhanced the tunes. It’s probably been years since an observer has said, “With a voice like that why does he bother playing harp?”
During the first of two sets, Nemeth dedicated a song to B.B. King, who when he died last month left a giant void in the blues. One of young stars who is filling that void was in Tahoe on Tuesday, another bluesman who honed his art in Memphis.