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BLUES & BEYOND: In the ‘Nick’ of time

Roots guitarist Nick Johnson stays busy in tough times

OCT Blues #1 Nj Gf
Photo credit: IAN RAWN
RIPPING IT UP: Nick Johnson in action.

Nick Johnson better not run afoul of the law. It’s too easy to find him.

The ubiquitous Atlanta-by-way-of-Boston guitarist has been a fixture on the city’s roots, blues and jam scene for nearly a decade. Not only is he a full-time member of three groups — The Electromatics, The Randall Bramblett Band and, most recently, N.A.S.H. — but he also works as a sideman and freelancer for last minute substitutions in other outfits and is becoming more in demand for recordings that feature his stinging, soulful leads. Pre-pandemic, he was impossible to miss as one of the busiest and most talented players in the city’s bubbling roots scene. If you’re into blues and rock, often with a Southern twist, you’ve seen Nick hold down the guitar slot in bands at Blind Willie’s, Northside Tavern, Smith’s Olde Bar, Eddie’s Attic and other stages.

As with most musicians, stitching together a career hasn’t been easy for Johnson. But between his work on stage, in the studio and as a tutor, Johnson has made it happen through talent and a warm, low-key, friendly approach that anyone who has met him appreciates. 

Johnson started learning his instrument early, at 11 years of age, taking lessons from a friend’s stepdad. He was a music fan even before that and “knew that I wanted to play something, it was just a matter of what I could get my hands on first,” he explains. He turned professional — or at least started earning money from playing — at 16 in Boston’s South Shore area, arriving in Atlanta immediately after graduating high school in 2006. When asked who first inspired him, Johnson swiftly replies, “Derek Trucks. When I heard him live for the first time in 2001, that was a game changer. I saw this dude who was really young, and his playing was earthshaking but there was very little show element to it.” Trucks was Johnson’s pathway to other Southern and Atlanta musicians, inspiring his move to the city. “My idea was that these musicians are all really great, and they live down there, so at the very least I can go listen to their gigs.”

It didn’t take long for Johnson to enter the circle of The Derek Trucks Band, which at the time included Col. Bruce Hampton and “all the people that orbited around him.” The guitarist was impressed with Trucks’ group because it was so diverse. “Everybody was different ages, different backgrounds, different colors, and the music reflected that. It was real(ly) worldly.” Trucks’ drummer Yonrico Scott told him, “Music school is one way you can go, but you can just get out there and play.” That was good enough for Johnson who did just that. 

Between 2007 and 2010, he gigged with Scott and The Last Waltz Ensemble, played in bassist Kevin Scott’s now legendary Tuesday night jams, and finally joined Hampton’s revolving door of players. “We got a turn on the carousel with Bruce for about a year.” Like everyone else who has played with the Colonel, he was eventually fired from Hampton’s crew. But he learned plenty — as anyone who has been around Hampton will attest. “Sometimes you were left to wonder, did (his feedback) mean everything or did it mean nothing. I guess we’re just thankful for the lessons we took from it.” 

A connection with Chuck Leavell — the keyboardist formerly with The Allman Brothers Band and Sea Level who for the last thirty years has toured with The Rolling Stones — led to Johnson joining some of Capricorn Records’ legendary musicians at the reopening celebration of the label’s Macon recording studio in December 2019. The gig, connecting him with the musicians who initially inspired his Atlanta move, remains one of the highlights of his career. 

The Hampton association resulted in arguably Johnson’s highest profile and longest lasting gig to date — as a member of Randall Bramblett’s hard-touring band. Hampton recommended Johnson to the Athens-based Bramblett, and Johnson has worked with him steadily since 2012, recording one song on Bramblett’s 2013 album The Bright Spots. He contributed progressively more on every subsequent release, most recently on Pine Needle Fire where he plays on every track. Bramblett’s combination of pensive and rocking red clay sounds is a perfect match for Johnson’s sympathetic style.

As for The Electromatics, Johnson hung around Blind Willie’s during their shows long enough that when the band’s guitar spot opened in 2012, he was invited to fill it by bassist Aaron Trubic. While the Jon Liebman-fronted act has gone through many personnel changes over the years, Johnson remains a key ingredient, working head to head with Leibman’s harp and vocals to produce some of the city’s finest and most rugged soul and blues.

Johnson’s newest project is the N.A.S.H. quartet, each letter taken from the first name of its members — Nick Johnson, drummer Adam Goodhue, keyboardist Spencer Pope and bassist Hill Roberts. The band started in February 2021, playing a diverse palette of blues, country, funk and swamp rock with a jam aesthetic. Covers from the Grateful Dead, Waylon Jennings, Hendrix, Freddie King and Howlin’ Wolf, along with a few originals and even a rare Nick Johnson vocal, are typical of their sets.

They have been holding court about once a month at Blind Willie’s. Johnson feels, “This is a good band to do some stuff I don’t get to do in these other bands in terms of choosing the material. … It’s still a new thing and evolving all the time.” There are no recordings, yet some may come in the future.

But that takes time, something that Johnson, after navigating the dry year of 2020, doesn’t have much of these days. Gigs for all his projects are now resuming, and he continues teaching guitar to about a dozen students a week. Up next is his contribution to the track “Superhighway” for a high-profile Neal Casal tribute album, recorded with Oteil Burbridge, Duane Trucks and others, which should increase Johnson’s visibility on a national level. 

And as usual, at least pre-pandemic usual, Johnson is probably on stage somewhere ripping off a killer solo then retreating into the background. 

No, finding Nick Johnson is not hard at all. —CL—


UPCOMING:

It’s fall y’all. Get out and enjoy some roots and blues along with cooler temperatures.

FRI., OCT. 8-SAT., OCT. 9

Wire & Wood Festival, Alpharetta — Thirty artists, six stages and two days outdoors in the cooler weather of early October — what’s not to like? And it’s free. Ruthie Foster and Drew Holcomb top the bill for this singer-songwriter fest, but at press time they were the only ones advertised. You may not recognize many names of those who do appear — and you never know which ones will become famous later. So chill out in low-key Alpharetta, appreciate the end of summer weather and get acquainted with some new acts while enjoying the headliners. Free. 5:00 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Downtown Alpharetta, 20 S. Main St., Alpharetta, GA 30004. wireandwoodalpharetta.com @wireandwoodfest

SAT., OCT. 9

Tim O’Brien Band, Eddie’s Attic — Anyone who follows bluegrass knows guitarist Tim O’Brien’s name. He was a member of the influential Hot Rize before heading off on a solo career resulting in a few dozen albums, mostly for indie labels. Now in his mid-60s, he’s still going strong, releasing this year the delightful and surprisingly soulful He Walked On from which he is sure to play some tracks. $37-148. Doors 6:00 p.m. Show 7:00 p.m. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St. eddiesattic.com @eddiesattic

SAT., OCT. 9

Darrell Scott, City Winery — Country songwriter Scott probably could have retired on the mailbox money he gets from writing songs for some of country’s biggest stars. Instead he releases his own terrific albums, supporting them by hitting the road and playing small clubs. His visibility took a huge jump in 2010 when he joined Robert Plant’s Band of Joy where he added anything with strings to Plant’s back-to-roots sound. In 2020 Scott covered Hank Williams songs for an album that was a surprise hit. He has been there, done that and has some wonderful stories about his experiences, which is half the attraction. $27-35. Doors 6:30 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. N.E. citywinery.com @citywineryatl

SUN., OCT. 10

Craig Brown Band, The EARL — You want twisted rock and roll? Go to Detroit. That’s where Craig Brown is from, and his ragged but right garage country can be described as dive bar hillbilly. His 2017 debut was a roots garage highlight of the year and even though he hasn’t released an album since — no matter. This is not a band you go to expecting to hear specific songs. You the ragtag vibe that gets into your jeans when Brown’s crew taps into a scruffy niche that’ll push buttons you didn’t even think you had. $13-15. Doors 7:00 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. The EARL, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E. badearl.com @earl_eav

MON., OCT. 11

Jim Messina, City Winery — Most recognize Messina’s name from his years with Kenny Loggins. But Messina played a substantial part in the history of country rock working with Buffalo Springfield, Poco and recording some impressive post-Loggins solo projects. Unbeknownst to many, he released a live album this year, which gives a good indication of what to expect as he taps the catalogs of all his bands and burns through versions that almost top the originals. $120. Doors 6:30 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. N.E. citywinery.com @citywineryatl

THURS., OCT. 14

Eilen Jewell, City Winery —  Singer/songwriter Jewell combines subtle folk, blues, country, and occasional heaping helpings of roots rock into music that’s both touching and visceral. She’s been doing it for over 15 years. Her tour for 2019’s terrific Gypsy was cut short by the pandemic; this is the first we’ll get to hear those songs live. Jewell’s band is always top notch and veteran, shotgun riding guitarist Jerry Miller alone is worth the price of admission. $22-30. Doors 6:00 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. N.E. citywinery.com @citywineryatl

THURS., OCT. 14-SAT., OCT. 16

Noah Gundersen, Eddie’s Attic — The indie folk singer-songwriter settles in for a rare three night stand. Eddie’s is the perfect venue for absorbing his sensitive, occasionally dark, introspective songs that float and sting. He combines reflective folk and blues with a voice that feels lived in, warm and honest. $25-30. Doors 6:00 p.m. Show 7:00 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St. eddiesattic.com @eddiesattic

FRI., OCT. 15

Women in Blues, Tunes by the Tracks — This Diane Durrett-hosted afternoon of local blues women performers returns after 2019’s successful debut. The pandemic has moved it outdoors for safety, but still expect rousing performances and a rare chance to enjoy this vibrant group of musicians all at once. See September’s Blues & Beyond for full details. Free. 7:00 p.m. Stone Mountain Village, Municipal Parking Lot, 922 Main St., Stone Mountain, GA 30083. stonemountaincity.org tunesbythetracks.com @cityofstonemtn @tunesbythetracks

SUN., OCT. 17

The Weight Band, City Winery — The music of The Band is kept alive by this outfit that also plays their own originals and songs from other roots and Americana music acts loosely grouped under the “Woodstock sound.” Front man Jim Weider played with both The Band and Levon Helm. His presence infuses integrity into an outfit that has toured relentlessly since 2013.
$25-32. Doors 6:30 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. N.E. citywinery.com @citywineryatl

Carsie Blanton, Eddie’s Attic — Like The Wood Brothers who she has opened for, Philadelphia-based Blanton’s idiosyncratic music borrows from folk, blues, and jazz, combining them with a sensual voice somewhat similar to Rickie Lee Jones, along with a smidgen of wry humor. She will feature songs from her 2019 album Buck Up, the finest of a career that started in 2005. $15-18. Doors 5:00 p.m. Show 6:00 p.m. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St., Decatur, GA 30030. eddiesattic.com @eddiesattic

The Delta Bombers, Hillbilly Casino, The EARL — This raw roots rocking double bill is headlined by the scuzzy, twangy rock of Las Vegas’ Delta Bombers. They have cranked out their garage country for a decade — and it hasn’t gotten any prettier or slicker through the years. The Nashville based openers tear into their rugged hot-wired rockabilly like the Stray Cats on amphetamines. The combination makes for a roof-raising night that those who frequented the twang heavy Star Bar in the mid-90s will appreciate. $20-25. Doors 7:00 p.m. Show 7:30 p.m. The EARL, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E. badearl.com @earl_eav

WED., OCT. 20

Tommy Castro & the Painkillers, Walter Wolfman Washington, City Winery — West Coast blues and soul rocking guitarist Castro has been a presence on the scene since 1994, churning out solid albums amid constant touring. He always delivers the goods with an energetic stage presence that is fun and contagious. Opener Washington is a New Orleans legend whose funk, soul, jazz and blues hybrid is unique and inspirational. $30-38. Doors 6:00 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. N.E. citywinery.com @citywineryatl

FRI., OCT. 22

Randall Bramblett Band, Eddie’s Attic —  The Athens-based Bramblett is no stranger to Eddie’s, but it’s always a treat when he returns, especially with a full band featuring local guitarist Nick Johnson (see Blues & Beyond feature above). He’s touring behind 2020’s Pine Needle Fire, one of his finest in an ever-thickening catalog of soulful, moving, indie and very Southern singer-songwriter fare. $18. Doors 6:00 p.m. Show 7:00 p.m. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St., Decatur, GA 30030. eddiesattic.com @eddiesattic

SAT., OCT. 23

Larkin Poe, Shaky Knees Music Festival — Give one-time Atlanta-based, now Nashville-ensconced, sisters Larkin Poe credit for bringing their tough blues rocking to a decidedly non-blues event. They are the most blues-based act on this three-day festival lineup. Be sure to support them in what might not be an especially welcoming environment. $99-7400. 4:45 p.m. Shaky Knees Piedmont Stage, 395 Piedmont Ave. N.E. shakykneesfestival.com @shakykneesfest

SUN., OCT. 24

Boz Scaggs, Fox Theatre — Unbeknownst to many of the yacht-rock lovers that will likely pack the place waiting to sing along with ’70s hits “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” Boz Scaggs has recently returned to his first love, the blues, for a clutch of albums. He will skillfully insert selections from those into a set of slick yet soulful material cherry-picked from a five-decade career. He typically closes with the riveting slow blues of “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” that still crackles with the memory of Duane Allman’s fiery lead. $59.50-79.50. Doors 7:00 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E. foxtheatre.org @thefoxtheatre

MON., OCT. 25

Walter Trout, City Winery — There are blues rockers who play guitar, and there are those that wrestle it to the ground. Trout is in the latter category and has been burning up stages for decades. Recent health issues slowed him down for a few years, but he’s back and guaranteed to blow the roof off this intimate venue with a raging intensity few others pull off quite as convincingly. $30-40. Doors 6:30 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. N.E. citywinery.com @citywineryatl

Ally Venable, Eddie’s Attic —  She’s young, talented and can rock the blues with the swagger of a veteran. It doesn’t hurt that Venable has been touring since she was 14 — she’s 22 now — and has the blessing of heavy hitters such as Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who appears on her most recent Heart of Fire release.  $16. Doors 6:00 p.m. Show 7:00 p.m. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St., Decatur, GA 30030. eddiesattic.com @eddiesattic

TUES., OCT. 26

The Texas Gentlemen, Nikki & the Phantom Callers, The EARL — This powerful double bill is headlined by the Texas Gentlemen’s eclectic roots rocking, which shifts from Booker T. & the MG’s funk to rootsy indie rock and soulful country. The locally based openers, fronted by singer Nikki Speake, bring the Go-Go’s down south with a sassy roots rocking attitude.
$15. Doors 7:30 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. The EARL, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E. badearl.com @earl_eav

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Rooftop at The Eastern —  Lamarr’s heavy jazz-rock-blues organ matched with Jimmy James’ Hendrix-inspired guitar is intensely funky and powerfully soulful. No one sings, but you won’t miss vocals when watching Lamarr’s flying hands and feet laying down a non-stop groove giving way to James’ twisted, freaked out solos. $17-20. Doors 5:30 p.m. Show 6:00 p.m. Rooftop at The Eastern, 800 Old Flat Shoals Rd. S.E. easternatl.com @eastern_atl

THURS., OCT. 28

Hayes Carll, Terminal West — Singer-songwriter Carll can be slotted into the country music field, but like John Prine — a major influence on Carll — his edgy, often swampy music and lyrics transcend that genre. His dark humor clicked early with 2008’s “She Left Me for Jesus,” yet Carll has a deeper, more sensitive side too, which he displays on his fine new album You Get It All$25-100. 8:00 p.m. Terminal West, 887 W. Marietta St. N.W., C. terminalwestatl.com @terminalwest

Whitney Rose, Eddie’s Attic — Texan-by-way-of-Canada Whitney Rose describes her sound as “vintage pop,” which is basically a combination of Dolly’s country and West Coast Laurel Canyon folk rock with plenty of twang. She had been on the road nearly non-stop increasing her fan base organically before the pandemic ended that. Now she’s back. Once you hear her belt out songs, you’ll know why she’s one of the finest roots acts around. $15. Doors 9:00 p.m. Show 9:15 p.m. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St., Decatur, GA 30030. eddiesattic.com @eddiesattic

FRI., OCT. 29

Jon Latham, Eddie’s Attic — This Kennesaw-born-and-bred, Kevn Kinney-approved, singer-songwriter rocks out like a combination of Drive-By Truckers and Drivin N Cryin. His lone album appeared five years ago, but you can expect new music interspersed with tracks from 2017’s terrific Lifers$10. Doors 9:15 p.m. Show 9:30 p.m. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St., Decatur, GA 30030. eddiesattic.com @eddiesattic

THURS., NOV. 4

Chris Knight, City Winery — Knight kicked off his career in 1998 on a major label, but his Americana is just too dusky, personal and grimy for the masses. That hasn’t stopped him from digging deeper into a sound somewhat similar to what James McMurtry and Steve Earle have been crafting for years. The difference being Knight’s gruffly voiced story-songs reflect the often difficult lives of the proud blue-collar people of his Kentucky home. His 2019 release Almost Daylight, his first in seven years, might just be his finest — and darkest — yet. $30-35. Doors 6:30 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave. N.E. citywinery.com @citywineryatl

The Legendary Shack Shakers, The EARL — These Southern, rockabilly, frazzled blues revivalists are led by the irrepressible J.D. Wilkes, who is as proficient on harmonica as he is on banjo. No one really knows or cares who is in his current Shack Shakers. You don’t watch anyone else once this wild man takes the stage. The band’s fans range from Stephen King to Robert Plant. Anyone who sees them tear it up live will understand why. $15-17. Doors 7:30 p.m. Show 8:00 p.m. The EARL, 488 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E. badearl.com @earl_eav

Please send upcoming blues events for consideration to be included in Creative Loafing’s Blues & Beyond concert calendar to hal.horowitz at creativeloafing.com





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