Release date: July 14, 2023
By Curt Brown
Nick Moss & Dennis Gruenling / photo: Howard Greenblatt
Due to be released on July 14th, this third outing for Alligator Records by The Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling is not only the most fully-developed Moss and company have delivered for the label, but also across the entirety of Moss’s career.
Having been mentored in his abundant blues dexterities while working in the bands of modern-day Chicago blues titans such as post-war guitar giant and Muddy Waters Band alum Jimmy Rogers, modern west side Chicago fret burner Jimmy Dawkins, and Muddy Waters band drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Moss’s ability to fuse the classic Chicago blues guitar character of the 1940s-1960s with that of the Texas and west coast schools sets him head-and-shoulders beyond very many of his contemporaries.
And though Gruenling doesn’t count internships with blues giants on his resume as he honed his expansive harmonica proficiencies, his mastery on the humble instrument allowed him to bask in the tutelage of certain of the genre’s best players ever, including The Deacon Of The Delta, Sam Myers, post-war virtuoso Snooky Pryor, and the leather-lunged James Cotton.
On full display for all to revel in here is a band that has fully and uniquely conjoined itself to Moss’s and Gruenling’s blues visions, one that is highly steeped in refinement, discipline, command, wit, genuineness, bliss, and dedication to the concept of collaborative execution. This is a very atypical fusion in today’s blues recording environment, and across the variety of weighty output found here, it can only be construed that all involved were 100% invested in the project and its maximum potential.
Pierce Downer is akin to a human metronome, and his ability to campaign the rhythmic requirements on each of the differing song styles here is astonishing. His versatility is mighty. Taylor Streiff’s keyboard work imparts layers of complementing touches and runs that add widely to the varying musical pathways. His musical fabric offers way more than fill; it is a wholly necessary ingredient. Brazilian Rodrigo Mantovani’s upright and electric low-end efforts on the bass roil and brew in the background providing sass, strength, and assuredness. He also extends certain percussion labors, as well as being a co-producer with Moss on this set.
This 14-cut collection (12 Moss originals and two provided by Gruenling) was recorded in Moss’s personal studio, and additional endeavor invitees further heightened the quality and spirit of this blues mission. “Sax” Gordon Beadle is found plying his vast saxophone competencies, while “Brother” John Kattke lends his considerable organ aptitudes to one song. And by the way, it is utterly exhilarating to experience fresh blues songwriting; bravo!
One can only surmise that many life lessons are addressed in “The Bait In The Snare” as Moss sings and categorically delivers a forewarning cautionary tale best summed up in the following line, “Don’t fall for the bait/You won’t struggle in the snare.” Wise words, indeed! Gruenling weaves a romping first instrumental solo in the tune, with Moss later affording a tasty guitar solo of his own that churns, swirls, and drives home the point of the song. Behind Moss and Gruenling is ensemble playing where all parts are heard and coalesce ideally.
“Aurelie” finds Moss addressing a French lady, acknowledging his inability to effectively communicate, yet he seems able to completely communicate the sentiment that wine is the ideal social lubricant, and he is determined to enjoy a whole glass. Both Moss’s and Gruenling’s solos are a bit sharper in tone here, with the electric keyboard comping of Streiff adding a certain mischievousness to the atmosphere.
The title tune, “Get Your Back Into It,” finds Moss imparting, shall we say, the most important aspect of the act of physical love. Gruenling’s fiery full-throated solo brays and kicks like a rank mule. Streiff’s piano workout bounces with a confident swagger that parallels the assertive tenor of the song’s central message. Moss’s guitar solos are combustible in their tension build-ups and releases, especially the first when he deploys his slide to lofty effect. It seems that Moss has perhaps Earl Hooker and/or Johnny Littlejohn assisting him in constructing his slide work from The Great Beyond. All the while Downer slaps a dynamic cadence. Listen to Mantovani walk that bass of his with a strutting coolness; well done!
“Man On The Move” opens with a West Coast vibe as Downer’s swinging drum and an emphatic “Whoo” (from someone) sets the up-tempo expectation for this ride. Gruenling takes the vocals here, and what a consummate job he does! When Gruenling’s harmonica comes in with a ringing quality a la William Clarke, make no mistake, he is never an imitator, but rather someone who idyllically expresses the sonic wall required of a particular tune. This is a song where you place the furniture tightly up against the room’s walls and all the cats and kittens dance in the best house party tradition. This is a celebrational soundtrack for a festivity, though the song’s essential message revolves around the ever-churning role of the traveling musician, someone perhaps who both finds exasperation and promise in the lifestyle. Moss’s guitar solo brings to mind Pee Wee Crayton and T-Bone Walker. Gruenling sways and swings throughout, eliciting a second “Whoo” and a “Hey” from somebody nearby, seeming to indicate that for Gruenling, career paths chosen in the blues realm provide more pros than cons.
Robert Nighthawk-ish in its opening, Moss’s slide guitar stanzas on, “Living In Heartache,” are joined by Gruenling roaring harmonica sorrows behind him; Moss then sings an aching and crushing account of soothing his hurting girl. His guitar solo continues the slide guitar assault with the Nighthawk character, and then Gruenling’s own solo cries and shrieks the inherent pain at the story’s center. To conclusion, Moss’s devotion to his woman stays steadfast, and the collective limitless energies of Streiff, Mantovani, and Downer corral the agony at the song’s core and frame it with superlative reverence for the dark subject matter and unwavering dedication being provided.
“It Shocks Me Out” sends out a Willie Mabon-esque “I Don’t Know” vibe after a more rousing orchestrated introduction, with Mantovani walking a bass line before Moss sings a saga of his deep appreciation for the work of a bass player he sees in performance. And while the other band members in his vivid account are of the highest order, it is the bass man and his work that captures and captivates him. Gruenling’s and Moss’s solos satisfy, but when called into action, Mantovani briefly slaps his bass, setting-up the conclusion of the tune. As Moss praises the band at the center of his yarn, he testifies that he just couldn’t get over that bass player, all the while Mantovani methodically plies his low-end trade. It is Mantovani who should feel wholly gratified by the message delivered here from Moss, with the cut ending on another fine bass run.
“Brother” John Kattke joins the band via delicious organ know-hows on “Out Of The Woods,” with “Sax” Gordon Beadle interjecting fine bracing saxophone. This is a swinging fare a la one of the famed territory bands that roamed America from the 1920s through the 1960s, music meant to inspire dancing. What great orchestration is found here! This is not what one would expect from a seasoned Chicago blues band, but what is delivered is grand. Mantovani’s bass line is jubilant and playful, and Downer’s drumming whirls and rocks ideally. Moss’s guitar work brings to mind Saunders King, and that is high praise.
“Choose Wisely” finds the mood firmly rooted back in the blues. Moss croons a warning revolving around the following message: “You can change your course/Or live a life of remorse.” Deep stuff here. Moss’s rapid-fire guitar solo harkens to the importance of the future choices to be made, and after he sings further of the good for the heart and soul that proper life framing provides, Gruenling jumps in with a melodic solo reinforcing that fact; Mantovani’s bass line extends a tasteful border for the messages being articulated. Streiff’s piano rides along delightfully in the background, while Downer’s percussion keeps the song’s rhythmic intentions intact. As the tune concludes, Moss gets more fervent in his positive reinforcement messaging via his vocals, and one has to wonder if perhaps this is the last time Moss will try to coach his subject.
“Your Bark Is Worse Than Your Bite” turns back the clock with a John Lee Hooker boogie profile, with Gruenling taking the vocals. It is a tough take on the adversarial dynamic between a couple, inferring that Gruenling’s mate is always on the cusp of wanting to fight, but in the end, her talk far exceeds her willingness to follow-through. Gruening’s harmonica moans and wails with friction borne of the relationship, while Moss marches and stomps in the background, raising the bar on the song’s overall anxiety-laden storyline.
“Losing Ground” is three-plus minutes of a song that at its core addresses the dynamic of a perhaps failing love. This asserting tune is highlighted by a squalling Gruenling harmonica turn, while the band resolutely stirs, with Mantovani’s bass sneaking through just enough to make feet tap and heads shake. Streiff’s piano likewise separates itself from the pack just enough to heighten the excitement laid bare by the subject matter of the cut. When Moss sings, “I’d rather be in love than be right,” we all know where this relationship is heading.
“Bones’ Cantina” begins with a welcome rhumba beat that immediately grabs the listener and astonishes with the nod to the versatility this group is capable of; this is an instrumental that commands accolades for its brilliant development and execution. Some may perceive musical cuisine such as this is easy to disperse; that pack may want to rethink that notion as the strata of efforts being attempted here need to be expertly achieved lest the whole suffers. All are at their individual and collective bests on this welcome romp. Great stuff!
“Lonely Fool” immediate grabs with a dark, foreboding tenor, Streiff’s bass drum pounding and Moss’s guitar searing, the introduction to a song about love lost, one of the blues’ central themes, with Moss bemoaning his singular presence in his bed made for two. There is nothing here except an ideally constructed lamenting blues, and that is just fine in the best sense. A man reflecting on what he should’ve done in a relationship is a universal heartache, and this tune will resonate with anyone who has opened up their soul to love, whether they ideally nurtured that love to their best effort or not.
“The Solution” is a cut that is said to pay respect to the great Chicago blues master, Jimmy Johnson, who passed away in 2022 at the age of 93, a man who left his mark on so many aspects of Chicago’s blues scene. Moss’s guitar solo rings not in garish imitation to Johnson’s singular style, but with what seems to imply deep esteem for him and his influence. Gruenling warbles and totters in the background creating a marvelous curtain of sound. Beadle’s saxophone work plunges forward, providing an impactful wall of resonance, all the while Mantovani charges with a meandering bass line and Downer strikes firm with his drumming. “The Solution” is a well-implemented blues song about a man’s belief in his ability to be the centering energy of a relationship -- an homage that would make Jimmy Johnson proud. It would give him hope for the future of the blues, especially in Chicago.
This CD concludes with a rollicking and rowdy surf-ish instrumental entitled “Scratch-n-Sniff” that evokes what must be another of Moss’s guitar influences, Dick Dale. Or perhaps Wild Jimmy Spruill. How about Tarheel Slim? Does it even matter? No! This cut just plain cooks! Man, does Beadle scream, honk, and wail on the saxophone on this riotous ride! The whole band just veers, leans, and swerves into every dangerous corner that Moss and Beadle carry them. What a finale!
If you’ve been around music, musicians, and their recordings long enough and have developed something of a trained ear, one of the conclusions that can be discerned is when a band is truly comfortable with each other, has the ability to produce spontaneously superb songs, and do so with an infectious enjoyment. Throughout this blues excursion, while everyone involved stays in their lanes, those paths crisscross with what is right for the betterment of the envisioned output. Grand collaborative execution!
From Moss’s broad shoulders that carry the burden of his many blues inspirations, to Gruenling’s highly creative harmonica meanderings, over to co-producer Mantovani’s growling and enticing low-end patterns, then on to Streiff’s model keyboard shadings, and finally to Downer’s consistently nourishing percussion, it is difficult to walk away from time well-spent with this collection with anything other than the reasoned notion that the contemporarily vintage spectacle (if there is such a thing) that this outing affords was made by men who communicate incredibly well and are truly invested in the end product.
Hats off, as well, to Beadle and Kattke for their potent inputs! Time has proven that these two pros are assets to any project they undertake.
As co-producers, Moss’s and Gruenling’s creator hats were properly fitted, and as with any Alligator Records release, the sound is sharp and brilliant, and the packaging informative and top-shelf.
I’ll stick to my earlier stated conviction that this is Moss’s most completely realized and satisfying collection yet. This one will get a lot of press and airplay, and rightfully so. Enjoy!
About the Author: Curt Brown is the author of the weekly “Curt’s Blues” blog (Curt's Blues - Blues. Only. Spoken. Here. (curtsblues.com). He was the long-time late-night blues radio host on WSND FM 88.9 Notre Dame/South Bend. His Master’s Degree thesis from Indiana University dealt with the notion of travel in blues lyrics. He previously published a weekly blues article for the student newspaper of Indiana University South Bend, and has been interviewed by newspapers and magazines regarding the blues.