Johnny Nicholas – Mistaken Identity
Valcour Records – 2020
10 tracks; 39 minutes
Johnny Nicholas has enjoyed a long and varied career. He is originally from New England, played with some of the blues greats, hitched round the southern states and fronted Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel before raising a family and running The Hill Top Cafe, a bar/music venue in Texas. Along the way he has recorded eight solo albums which are very diverse in style. Here he returns to one of the places where he learned about music as a young man, South West Louisiana, where the album was recorded in producer Joel Savoy’s small studio. The core musicians are friends from Texas: Scrappy Jud Newcombe on guitar and mandolin and John Chipman on drums and percussion are both members of The Resentments and Chris Maresh is a go-to bass player whose credits include Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Additional musicians include Max Baca on bajo sexto, Josh Baca on accordion, Chris Stafford on organ, Eric Adcock on clavinet and a host of backing vocalists: all three band members, Kelli Jones, Sabra Guzman, Kelly Mickwee, Alice Spencer, Walt Wilkins and Bill Small. Johnny plays guitar, harp, piano and mandocello, wrote nine originals for the album, plus a cover of one song by the late Stephen Bruton (also a former member of The Resentments).
While in Louisiana where better to start than with a tale of voodoo spells, “She Stole My Mojo”, a resonator-driven number which finds Johnny under the spell of a woman who “cut my toenails off and put them in a crack. She killed a chicken and put it in a sack, she stole my mojo and won’t give it back”! The stripped-back “Mule And The Devil” finds Johnny talking to an old man who tells him that “the world don’t owe you nothin’ but a taste of heaven and hell”. “Spark To A Flame” is also pretty relaxed with Johnny’s quiet but commanding vocal before the title track “Mistaken Identity” which has Johnny’s piano at the heart of a song about a relationship established on a visit to NOLA but which turns toxic. The lyrics are clever and amusing: “She dragged me in like an old ship’s anchor, I didn’t know if I should run or I should thank her”.
There is a suitably border feel to “Guadalupe’s Prayer” with accordion and latin percussion subtly used on a story about a boy who was expected to be a savior but was eventually gunned down senselessly. After such a sad and moving song Johnny gives us a pair of fun songs, the chugging “Wanna Be Your Baby” has understated harp work and the rousing “Tight Pants” has great energy, the pounding piano adding a Jerry Lee dimension as Johnny reveals a definite enthusiasm for girls in roadside cantinas dressed in a certain style. We return to the border feel with accordion and percussion on another song about love that failed to last, “She Didn’t Think Of Me That Way”. “Highway 190” pays tribute to the area where Johnny once lived and returned for this recording. The rocking boogie tune recalls Johnny’s earlier song “Rocking My Blues To Sleep” and has plenty of piano, the lyrics painting a vivid picture of how the locals have fun though Johnny has to defend his honor against accusations of indulgence: “I been thinking how much you been drinkin’ and I believe you had something to smoke. I said honest, Janette, it was a straight cigarette and a big old bottle of coke.” The sadly missed Stephen Bruton’s emotional “River Runs Deep” is a beautiful song with the memorable refrain “you’ll find your way and then you’ll take that leap. You’ll find that love’s a river and the river runs deep”, making a fine way to end the album.
This is far from a straight blues album but everything Johnny Nicholas does is imbued with the blues, even when he is taking us south of the Mexican border. As with all Johnny’s output, this is a rich album that reveals more of its qualities with repeat plays and is well worth hearing.