Nick Moss and the Flip Tops
Nick Moss learned his Chicago blues the right way – through apprenticeships. He was barely out of his teens when he took over the bass slot in Jimmy Dawkins ‘band in 1993, and from there he joined the Legendary Blues Band, which had originally been staffed by Muddy Waters vets and still boasted Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums and Pinetop Perkins on piano. Bandleader Smith switched him to guitar, and Moss made his recording debut with the LBB’s Money Talks. After two years at that job he became second guitarist to the greatest second guitarist in blues history, Jimmy Rogers, of the classic Waters 1950s band.
So it’s no surprise that when he went out on his own with his band the Flip Tops following Rogers ’1997 death, Moss stayed true to the blues he knew. First Offense, his 1999 debut album, was self-consciously derivative of Rogers, and his next two efforts still sounded somewhat tentative even as he was both expanding and refining his approach within the Chicago tradition. Then, with the 2005 Sadie Mae, Moss hit his stride. His music was now fully realized, with hard moaners like “One-Eyed Jack” sounding brash and confident and “The Money I Make” showing off a varied guitar attack. The sound was still Chicago blues, and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything else, but Moss didn’t really sound like anybody in particular in that genre, past or present. His music was still absolutely true to the masters, yet also a bit more contemporary. Moss had never been shy about extensive soloing, which made him part of the guitar-hero generation, but he knew also when to reign himself in.
With his next release, Moss consolidated his position. The 2006 Live at Chan’s, like all of his albums before and since, came out on Blue Bella, his own label, which also releases spinoff work by former sidemen (guitarist/mandolinist Gerry Hundt, harmonica player Bill Lupkin) and disks from local favorites The Kilborn Alley Blues Band, all of it produced by Moss himself. The groove and energy of Live at Chan’s were impressive at the time though, as it turns out, the set was something of a warm-up for the even more impressive Live at Chan’s – Combo Platter No. 2 released earlier this year. In between the two live sets came the double-album Play Til Tomorrow. One of the disks was mostly acoustic, thus harkening back to the pre-electric Chicago blues ensembles and their Delta roots – but it brought out the blues scholar in Moss more than the blues musician, though “Crazy Mixed Up Baby ’07,” with the loose and feel-good spirit of Mississippi John Hurt’s pop-blues, was a delightful exception. Yet the electric Tomorrow made it clear that Moss was far from heading into a slump, but was in fact still growing in what he does best. “Mistakes from the Past” is uneasy and ominous, like only Chicago blues can be, while “Bad Avenue” has the controlled cacophony of a band in which everyone sounds like he’s soloing at once but the pieces fit together beautifully. “Peculiar Feeling” is another wailing band effort.
The second Live at Chan’s exemplifies nearly everything good that I’ve described, or hinted at, above. There’s something almost mystical that happens – a “feel” that’s both hard to describe and hard not to notice – when a Chicago blues band is tight, and everyone is playing just behind the beat; it’s not swing, though it does swing in its own way. Moss and the Flip Tops start out like that here, and by the time they head into “Lonesome Bedroom Blues” and “Fill “er Up” the effect is mesmerizing, to say nothing of giddy. Then guest guitarist Lurrie Bell steps forward to kick off a long, maniacal “Don’t You Lie to Me,” the guitar duel between him and Moss building to a cathartic frenzy that threatens to blow the roof off the venerable Rhode Island venue. It’s hard not to admire a bandleader who’s happy to be upstaged on his own showcase. But Moss is nothing if not an exemplary bandleader – he proves this time and again by continuing to lead his musicians even as he’s receding into the group sound. And he’s able to make the best of his limitations, because when you get right down to it he’s got a limited vocal range. Yet he’s constantly mixing things up within that range – drawing words out, snapping them off, going into what passes for a falsetto – to keep from sounding monochromatic. He also compensates for that limited range by studding all his albums and live sets with groove-reinforcing instrumentals like the burning “The Rump Bump.”
The result, for me at least, is that even when particular songs and solos don’t stick in the memory like they should, that feel retains its grip well after the music has stopped. And given what passes for blues most of the time these days, that’s not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all. In fact, I’ll take it every time.