For the better part of two decades now, blues singer-songwriter, harmonicist and top vocalist John Nemeth has delivered some great soul-blues albums. Yet, his relocation to Memphis seven years ago has deepened his sound, making it rawer and visceral on the blues material, and more traditional and emotive on the soul tunes. It proves to be an irresistible combination and at this point, he has stamped his signature style even more emphatically. Some of that credit, of course, goes to his core band, the Blue Dreamers, which features 19-year-old killer guitarist Jon Hay from Philadelphia, with drummer Danny Banks and bassist Matt Wilson. Stronger Than Stronger, his debut for Nola Blue Records, is Nemeth’s tenth overall. It’s definitely the grittiest, rowdiest, and dirtiest (in a good way) of them all. Nemeth penned ten of dozen tracks here, weighting the album more toward blues than R&B and soul, reversing his usual ratio that leaned more toward the latter. The pacing and mix of styles are nonetheless quite effective.
Another key ingredient to this sound is producer Scott Bomar, who leads the Bo-keys and operates Electraphonic recording Studios where Nemeth recorded his soul classics album Memphis Grease in 2014. They went for a live off the floor retro sound, seemingly influenced by listening to lots of Memphis Sun Record recordings, especially those of Howlin’ Wolf. Certainly, the opener “Come and Take It” seems to be right out of Wolf’s playbook. “Fountain of a Man” rambles with Banks making his presence felt. Nemeth rejuvenates early R&B with Junior Parker’s obscure B-side “Sometimes” with a slower swamp pop tempo and tremolo guitar riffs from Hay. “Throw Me in the Water” may borrow from gospel but Nemeth and band turn it into a burning rocker.
The apex of the album is in the two middle tracks, the blues shuffle “Chain Breaker Blues,” done more in a Chicago Wolf style with Nemeth singing and blowing up a storm and Hay taking the role of Hubert Sumlin with his piercing licks. Then we get to the soul tune “Bars,” one that should receive serious consideration for “Song of the Year” at the BMAs. Nemeth takes a somewhat witty approach to a biting commentary on today’s issues “Bars on the windows to keep us safe, Bars on the corner to help us relate….” Instead of preaching, he delivers just enough humor to keep it from being too heavy, but its impact is poignantly memorable. After that performance, the only real options are to go for something lighter or uplifting. Nemeth does both in the reggae/gospel- infused “I Can See Your Love Light Shine,” one for the live audiences that continue to motivate and inspire him. “Deprivin’ A Love” goes either further into danceable territory.
“Work for Love” takes us back to the down-home stomping blues akin to the opener. This is not only a strong vocal take but proves a showcase for his considerable harmonica chops with his extended solo, followed by a searing, explosive Hay guitar excursion. He reaches into his vintage R&B bag again for the ballad “Guess Who,” the biggest hit for singer/songwriter Jesse Belvin, who passed at age 27 in 1959. He follows with classic R&B on the doo-wop styled “She’s My Punisher.” Even with some social commentary found in “Chain Breaker” and “Bars” the album is generally joyous and upbeat so it’s only appropriate to close with the feel good “Sweep the Shack,” which sounds like many a blues song you may have heard until Hay steps in with his stinging guitar statement.
Nemeth is a tireless performer and road warrior who has clearly found his groove. He’s made many fine albums, but this is as strong, if not stronger than any. (just couldn’t resist that choice of words)