Nick Moss et al. banging out the blues, coming to Moondog's
Casual listeners may perceive the blues as sad or depressing music. But guitarist Nick Moss often finds humor in the genre, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
The title track from his new album, "The High Cost of Low Living," is a prime example.
"The best places (to find song titles) are Baptist churches in the South," says Moss, who appears with harmonica player Dennis Gruenling and his band March 10 at Moondog's in Blawnox. "You see these great titles on their little billboards in front of their churches. "The High Cost of Low Living," I got that right off a Baptist church in some small town in Georgia when we were on our way to Alabama to do a gig."
Other songs on the album – notably "Get Right Before You Left" and "Get Your Hands Out of My Pockets" – share a similar sense of whimsy. But Moss is nothing if not serious about the music. He started playing in Chicago clubs three decades ago, first as a bassist before switching to guitar, with bluesman including Jimmy Dawkins, Jimmy Rogers and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
"The way I look at it is I'm a direct descendant of them," he says. "I don't mean that by blood. I'm a follower, a devotee, if you will. Those guys were the guys I looked up to, those are the guys I revered, those are the guys I ended up playing with, those are the guys I called my friends. It felt like they were family to me."
Moss' blood family also steered him to music. His parents were avid music fans, and his grandmother, of Austrian-German descent, played harmonica.
"Sometimes she would just blow these little tunes," Moss says of his grandmother. "She knew all the little songs of the day. And I don't think she even realized she was influencing my brother and me to become musicians, but that was our first taste of live music: my grandmother singing to us and playing harmonica."
Harmonica remains an important part of Moss' sound that taps into traditional Chicago blues while also containing a contemporary edge. In 2016, Moss start to collaborate full time with Gruenling, a New Jersey native whom he considers to be one of the world's greatest harmonica players.
"I don't use that term lightly because I've played with some of the world's greatest blues harmonica players," Moss says, "and Dennis is right up there. He has a very unique approach to his phrasing. It's not exactly the norm. I hate to use this term, but there's usually some type of formula guys will use. You hear that a lot with generic style harmonica playing and you can almost predict what will be played next. And Dennis has a wide vocabulary because he listens to a lot of music – big band music, blues, early rock and soul. He not only has harmonica licks, but saxophone licks, guitar licks, piano licks, even vocal licks."
Moss compares Greunling to the late William Clarke, who died in 1996 at the age of 45, but left an indelible impression on blues music.
As it turns out, Clarke's widow, Jeannette Clarke, lives outside of Pittsburgh "and comes to all of our shows in Pittsburgh, Moss says. "She loves Dennis, because he probably reminds her of Bill a little bit."
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.