Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thrill On The Hill

Thrill on the Hill
Johnny Nicholas
Topcat Records

I mentioned Johnny Nicholas in a couple of previous posts and how I became familiar with him through his work with Big Walter Horton and also on the Blind Pig Records Johnny Shines/Snooky Prior release.

I miss out on a lot of marvelous music, such as what Johnny is laying down here on Thrill on the Hill, due to economics more than anything else. At some point, I had to narrow my focus and purchases down to my personal preference of listening to that nasty ol' amplified blues harp stuff. Just can't buy it all. Back in the day when I reviewed CDs for the Delta Snake Blues website, I was deluged with volumes of blues releases that covered the spectrum of the genre and many times stretched the imagination in an attempt to find anything bluesy in some of them. So, for a period of time, I sort of heard it all--the good, the bad and the ugly. There were some solid gold blues gems with plenty of dogs mixed among them--but I didn't have to pay to listen to them.

So, even though I had read very positive reviews of Thrill on the Hill when it was released on Antones Records back in 1994, it didn't fit my economic criteria and I passed on it. I figured that at some point maybe I would pick it up, but like often happens it ended up out of print. I was glad to see that Guitar Johnny and Topcat Records were in collusion with each other and saw fit to re-release this 'un and add four bonus tracks while they were at it. I've already mentioned that I thanked my daughter and son-in-law for picking it up while they were dining at his Hilltop Cafe. Gettin' long winded here, so I'll get on with it.

This is just rollickin' good music played by a great group of musicians that are obviously have fun and for an audience that eggs them on to keep it doing it. It is not hard to determine that these guys are having a jam up and jelly tight good time (although, it's hard to determine just who is playing what because the information is not printed anywhere). There is a picture of Johnny and his cohorts gathered around singing a chorus or two, but that only helps those that recognize those. I do know that Asleep at the Wheel alumnus, Floyd Dixon is banging' the 88s on some of the tunes, because Nicholas calls out his name a time or two. Being the multi-instrumentalist that he is, it is probably Johnny applying his skill to the harmonica, guitar, mandolin and maybe even piano on Johnny's Deathray Boogie/Thrill on the Hill, because he calls in Dixon to lend his hand about halfway through the jumping, jiving, dive bombing instrumental. Pretty sure, also, that Stephen Bruton is bending some strings somewhere in the room, since he lent his hand in the production and appears to be a partner in rhyme with Johnny.

They do be boppin' on this original which is way down on track 15. The CD opens and closes with Robert Johnson tunes and before you think that you've heard his stuff more than enough by more than enough players, just listen to the long moanful blues harp note that Johnny opens Kind Hearted Woman with and realize that there ain't many that apply the harp to RJ's songs. He nails the King of the Delta Blues' vocal nuances on Phonograph Blues which wraps up the proceedings. He throws down some great Resonator slide on one other Johnson tune, Stones In My Pathway, just for good measure. Hanging around with Johnny Shines had to have helped influence what Nicholas gets going with these chestnuts and it didn't hurt to have Big Walter as a companion to straighten him out on the harp licks--many of them played very well from a neck hung rack. Johnny's harp finds its way into quite a number of the tunes here and he gets a great acoustic tone going on and I'd bet that he could do some real damage with a bullet mic cupped in his hands.

Most of the other cuts are good examples of how important ensemble playing is to the blues. These guys are all jumping in there contributing to the overall sound to make joyous noise together. Even though he's nicknamed Guitar Johnny, the only time that he really lets it rip is on a solo acoustic original called Thinkin' Bout Junior. The electric guitar shows its presence on the high spirited, but down hearted shuffle, Blue and Lonesome that sounds very similar to Jimmy Reed's High and Lonesome. Whoever is leading the charge on the electric string bending here (maybe Johnny, maybe not), does so with restraint and taste, but drives and guides the tune and throws down well chosen riffs when soloing. The only other time the electric stands out is during a couple of well manicured solos within a Tin Pan Alley type crooner, Tomorrow Night, which is awarded with a hearty round of applause and whoops from the crowd.

A few songs, such as that one, break away from the twelve bar groove and add a little variety to the set. There is not a heck of a lot of covers of Link Davis' material, but Johnny's harp leads the way in the Cajun flavored stomp,Let's Go To Big Houston and the acapella rendition of Son House's John The Revelator with the group providing a doo-wop, gospelish background chorus is just too cool. My Rice Ain't Got No Gravy isn't exactly blues either, but it fits the good time vibe and illustrates Johnny's penchant for penning humorous lyrics when he sings: My rice ain't got no gravy/Just about to drive me crazy/My rice ain't got no gravy/When I ain't got my baby/Things just ain't so nice/When I ain't got gravy on my rice.
Beulah Facyson's House Cleaning Blues mines similar humor laden territory along with like minded Nicholas penned numbers, Prince Charming and Mandolin Moan. The latter tune showcases Johnny Young's influence with some might fine tater bug (slang for mandolin) picking, which he does the same on Mandolin Boogie. Ironically, the one Young song that he covers is Sleeping With The Devil that has no mandolin, but as on the original, is pushed by the electric guitar and has its own twist of humor.

This stuff is just plain infectious and when I need a bit of a lift, I grab it and give it a spin (or whatever a CD does in there)and before it finishes, it definitely coaxes a grin or two out of me. That's good music. It ain't going to appease anyone's needs for nasty ol' amplified blues harp, but it sure will remind us of what we're missing. Anyway--

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