Editor's Note: This review is part of a series of albums and artists nominated for the 2007 Blues Music Awards (full list of nominees). Nick Moss & The Flip Tops are nominated in the following BMA categories: Album of the Year, Instrumentalist of the Year- Guitar (Moss), Band of the Year, and Traditional Blues Album of the Year.
A friend and I have an ongoing debate about whether or not live albums should be considered for Album of the Year- type awards. He doesn't think they should. To him, distilling weeks and months of writing, arranging, recording, and mixing onto a round piece of plastic is far more worthy of the honor than a single night's work on stage. To him, an album is what is made in the studio. Concerts are great, but they aren't albums.
His reasoning is solid. I understand it. I also disagree with him. Music is, among other things, about a transfer of power and emotion. It is possible to transfer that power and emotion through a medium based on 1s and 0s, experienced alone or among friends, through headphones, earbuds, or subwoofers. Talk to any vinyl aficionado and they will tell you something is always lost in translation. In concert, there is nowhere for the energy to escape. When a performer is at the top of their game, the energy radiates from the stage until it fills the room and pierces everyone in it.
In the studio, producers and artists have countless gadgets and unlimited takes to make it all sound perfect. In concert, you get one take. Nail it, and you're the Stones in '72, Dylan in '74, Springsteen on the Darkness tour. Blow it, and you're Wilson Phillips. A live album may never be able to capture all of that, but when it comes close there is no question that one great night can be the musical moment of the year.
Before introducing Nick Moss & The Flip Tops, the crowd at Chan's is asked if they are ready for some Chicago blues. It takes only a few bars of the improvised "Eggroll Stroll" to transport this Rhode Island club halfway across country and back in time 50 years. A recording and performance like this are reminders the blues is not meant to be played in 70,000 seat stadiums or corporate arenas, but in smoke-filled clubs (while they still exist) where the band leader can still make eye contact with the front row of tables.
The lineup this night features Moss on lead guitar and vocals with regular Flip Tops Gerry Hundt on bass and Victor Spann on drums, and occasional Flip Top traveling companion Willie Oshawny on piano. For a handful of cuts, Hundt hands his bass over to Oshawny and picks up the harmonica. Guest Mike Welch adds some additional guitar on a few cuts as well.
Moss never seems lost during the improvised set opener, "Eggroll Stroll," confidently putting one foot in front of the other, one solo at a time and even stepping aside to make room for some special work from Oshawny. "Stroll" is an apt description for this grand but not overblown instrumental as Moss' guitar chops are tasty without becoming exhibitions of mindless shredding. Allowing the soloists to improvise is the rock-solid rhythm section of Hundt and Spann. They never hog the spotlight or divert attention from the soloists, but there is something musical about the way Spann's drumsticks dance across the cymbals throughout this song and throughout the night.
Moss is a terrific lead player but like many, he got his start playing bass and second guitar. "Check My Pulse" finds Moss stepping back to those rhythm roots, supporting Oshawny's fancy piano leads with solid fills. With his cover of Freddie King's "I Love The Woman," Moss' guitar lead and tone echoes Otis Rush (think "You're Breaking My Heart" from the BMA-nominated Wise Fools Pub album). He shared the spotlight with Oshawny on the first two numbers of the evening, but on "I Love The Woman," it is all Moss. The strings cry and wail for nine glorious minutes.
After a shuffling instrumental, a barroom juke, and a plaintive slow jam, Moss loosens things up and plays something slightly less traditional with "I Never Forget," an original from his most recent studio album, Sadie Mae. The intro echoes the work of Jimmie Vaughan and the song itself has more of a blues-rock vibe. It is a nice change of pace, because largely through the harp work of Gerry Hundt, "One-Eyed Jack" returns this show to a Chicago-style blues exhibition. Hundt won't make anyone forget Little Walter or James Cotton, but his playing is strong enough to create the desired Chicago effect. Welch makes his first on-stage appearance, offering a little more guitar muscle to the mix.
"The End," which oddly comes with two songs remaining on the set list, plays like a surf-blues/skiffle. Oshawny shifts from piano to organ, and Welch and Moss trade solos. If it were a duel, well, let's just say there is a reason the band is Nick Moss & The Flip Tops, not Mike Welch & The Flip Tops. Welch's solo is good, but Moss melts the tubes in his amp during his. In the liner notes, Moss says this solo features a tip of the cap to one of his heroes, Earl Hooker. Oshawny gets another chance to shine as he provides the lead vocal and flashes his piano skills on the jump-blues penultimate track, "Wine-O-Baby Boogie."
To quote Mark Lanegan, "As it begins, so too it ends." The show opened with the instrumental "Eggroll Stroll" and closes with another instrumental, "Move Over, Morris." Nick Moss & The Flip Tops entered with an improv stroll and go out sounding rowdy enough to start the show all over again. "Morris" is an exercise in groove and attitude. Moss' guitar tone takes on a bit more bite and his solo soars until he intentionally drops the tempo, only to reignite it again showing no sign of running out of energy or ideas.
The thing to do now is forget everything I have just said; forget I have just spent these paragraphs breaking Live at Chan's into pieces. Trying to describe the songs and sounds serves a purpose, but it gets in the way of the higher purpose. It is a shame to break this night, this album, and these songs into their basic parts because when taken as a whole it is all so damn much fun. Little Walter has a classic song, "Blues With a Feeling." That's what Live at Chan's is. This is blues with a feeling, and when the blues is played with feeling the music soars to something bigger than its individual parts or players. Moss and these Flip Tops are fantastic musicians, and on this July night they were vessels in the eternal blues universe. Live at Chan's isn't about awards, and it isn't a crusade to save the blues or to keep them alive. It's one night of blues with a feeling, likely delivered in much the same way Moss has delivered it hundreds of times before and yet different from every other performance captured on plastic. If you asked anyone at Chan's that night if this is the album of the year, they would probably tell you nothing could matter less- they were there when it happened.
Complete Set List for Live at Chan's
- Eggroll Stroll
- Check My Pulse
- I Love the Woman
- I Never Forget
- One-Eyed Jack
- Your Red Wagon
- Just Like That
- It's Good in Your Neighborhood
- The End
- Wine-O-Baby Boogie
- Move Over, Morris