Nick Curran and the Nightlifes

For those who crave blues from the old school -- Muddy, Little Walter, Otis Rush, Little Milton, et al. -- most modern blues recordings hold little appeal. The majority of them are too slickly produced, too heavy on the rock and roll, and too far removed from the heartache, joy and emotional punch of the genre's time-tested geniuses. Thank heaven for Nick Curran. His Blind Pig debut, Doctor Velvet, is a thirteen-song cure-all for the modern-day-blues blues. It's an especially surprising one, considering Curran's track record.

Over the past several years, Curran has made a name for himself as the youthful guitarist/sideman for such rockabillies as Ronnie Dawson. But his Elvis-friendly handiwork with those artists has apparently hidden his affection for meat-on-the-bone jump akin to Ike Turner's early sides. Doctor's immediate appeal is its vintage-minded production (by Austin's backdated knob worker, Billy Horton), which somehow replicates the rough-cut, live-in-the-studio sound of '50s-era blues.

The disc's songs, a mix of shark-skinned Curran originals and covers, sport similar vintage charms. The title track is a rollicking, mojo-man anthem stuffed with honking sax, loose background vocals and Curran's gristly, head-chopping soloing. His bullfrogged singing is even more wicked. "Shot Down" is a '60s-style garage rocker that's harder than most of the music by today's neo-garage acts. Like the other cuts on the CD, it sports gloriously frayed edges and vocals that peg the VU needles in the red. Turner fans will swoon over a loving re-creation of his guitar showcase "One More Time," and a pair of reverbed, tear-dropping classics by Curran ("Drivin' Me Crazy" and "She's Gone") that'll make Tina's ex think he's hearing unearthed recordings from his Cobra Records past. Curran's heart-in-pieces, howling-at-the-moon vocals on these songs alone are wonderfully frightening. To tip the rhythm-to-blues scales back out of lament land, Curran balances his woe with the juke-joint swagger of "Beautiful Girl" and the twelve-bar joy of "Midnite Hour." God bless him for it.

So many contemporary blues-based acts dress their craft in textures that dig it out of its earthy, roots appeal. With Doctor Velvet, Nick Curran delivers a lesson on how to stop such foolishness. He gives listeners the real meat and potatoes in a calorie-counting world and proves that the key to making great 21st-century R&B is kicking open the locked doors to the genre's past.


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