In the days of my youth I often lamented that Huntsville was a dead town. That broad criticism was applied to two specific laments: no band worth seeing ever played here and I couldn't get a date at gunpoint (which in retrospect may not have been the best approach to dating in the first place, but…). My interests were simple: music and girls, girls and music. I didn't need drugs, I didn't like cars, I didn't care about clothes. Not much has changed.
I got older. I got married. One area corrected itself, the other stopped mattering to me as much not because I quit enjoying live music but because I became more and more of a homebody. Bands weren't coming to Huntsville, and why should they? This isn't a major market and there were three good ones that were a reasonable drive from here. As years went by those reasonable drives seemed less reasonable. First, it was the explosion of ticket prices. Then it was the dreaded day job, making a quick midweek jaunt to Nashville or Atlanta seem impractical rather than a carefree adventure. My heart was willing, my body, mind, and pocketbook weren't.
There was an initial surge of excitement when I found out Nick Moss & The Flip Tops were coming to Huntsville because finally a band whose music I love was coming to my town. What could be simpler? Could there be any less of a no-brainer than Nick Moss in Huntsville? Maybe. I refrained from writing about it because I was just as sure as sure could be that my anti-social side would rear its ugly head and I'd chicken out of going and I didn't want to call my shot and then wuss out.
It turns out I know myself pretty well because two hours before showtime I was sitting in my apartment looking for excuses not to go. It also turns out I can surprise myself because I forced myself to leave the house; I was richly rewarded.
It wasn't billed as "An Evening With Nick Moss & The Flip Tops" but that is indeed what it turned out to be, and it made what was always going to be an enjoyable evening all the more memorable.
I arrived about an hour before showtime. I found a table not far from the stage and quickly recognized Flip Top drummer Bob Carter. Carter's profile on the cover of Moss' most recent studio album Play it 'Til Tomorrow — a fantastic record, I hasten to add — is unmistakable. As he assembled his kit, multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt and keys man "Piano" Willie Oshawny also went to work setting up their gear on a stage that wasn't much larger than a deck of cards.
Moments later, the imposing figure of Nick Moss emerged. Nick's a tough guy to miss. No, I'm not cracking wise about the man's weight (although he would later, during the band's first set). A former high school athlete, Moss is a mountain of a man. He strolled to the front of the stage to oversee preparations for the show and to lend a hand. He turned and looked out at the people already seated and we made eye contact. I'd never met Moss before, although I did interview him on the B-Sides Concept Album last year. My guess is he recognized me recognizing him because he took a couple steps my way. I stood up, walked to him and introduced myself. He smiled, shook my hand, and we grabbed a table closer to the stage than the one where I initially sat down.
Rather than pepper him with "journalist" questions, we chatted about his Chicago Bears. An avid sports fan, Moss says he's not worried about the team's wide receivers and is more of a Kyle Orton man as opposed to Rex Grossman. We also talked about the good fortune of Chicago's baseball teams, with the Cubs and White Sox in first place. Moss is more of a White Sox guy, but doesn't hate the Cubs (Cub fans can sometimes be a different story). It's in this context he told me a joke and a few anecdotes about some people in his inner circle. You'll have to trust me when I say the stories were good because there is no amount of coaxing that will ever get me to divulge them. We chatted a few more minutes and then Moss returned to the stage to make final preparations for the band's set.
As Moss worked, Hundt, wearing a blue, button-down Buddy Guy's Legends shirt, made his way over and introduced himself. I'd hoped to meet him because I love his solo debut Since Way Back, which I told him as we shook hands and he sat down.
We noted the weather gods were surprising and unseasonably kind. When rain is in the forecast, you better pray it actually falls because if it doesn't the drops hitting the ground will be the sweat from your brow. The only significant aspect of the stormfront present was a sustained, pleasant bridge. He noted the fan mounted atop the outdoor bar blowing a steady mist was actually doing the opposite of help. He was right. We also chatted about the band's upcoming tour plans, including those for a likely second live album from Chan's as well as a stop at a Canadian jazz festival. In addition to playing that festival as a member of the Flip Tops, Hundt will get a chance to play a solo set.
After a quick "soundcheck" of sorts, the band opened their set and brought a taste of real Chicago blues to the Tennessee Valley. They opened the set with Moss on slide, covering Little Johnny Jones and Hound Dog Taylor. Moss asked if the crowd was familiar with either great. Not surprisingly, they weren't. "That's okay," Moss said, smiling. "You don't have to know 'em to like 'em."
He has more than enough chops to dominate a set, but his generosity with his talented bandmates is one of his strengths as a bandleader. On this night, the mighty "Piano" Willie Oshawny put on a fantastic show. Being a sports fan myself I've seen the chiseled physique of many great athletes, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything more muscled than Oshawny's right forearm. Popeye would be jealous. Throughout the first set, Moss would call out for Willie and each time Oshawny was ready to pound the keys with some terrific fills. In addition to allowing Carter, Hundt, and Oshawny to shine as instrumentalists, Moss also passed the microphone around allowing each to take a lead vocal.
There is a small but proud tradition of mandolin in Chicago blues, and Hundt used his spotlight moment to pay tribute to one of the greats during a brilliant cover of Johnny Young's "Money Takin' Woman." With Hundt swapping his bass for mandolin, Moss set down his guitar and blew some more than respectable harp. Oshawny filled in for the absence of Hundt's bass with his lefthand pounding the keys to provide some bass-like work, locking in with Carter to keep the rhythm tight.
Moss and Hundt chatted up some fans and Carter made his way to my table to grab a smoke during a brief intermission. The courtyard at Humphrey's is one of the last places in America where a man can hang a smoke without being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Moss opened the "merch" table (a large suitcase) and sold a few CDs before grabbing a seat with me and Carter.
"So you guys are headed back to Chan's to do another live album?" I asked.
Moss nodded. He said they had a guest musician lined up to do the shows with them. On the off chance that guest musician's identity is to remain a secret I'll say only this: if you listen to Chicago blues, you know this man.
There were also stories about his days with Jimmy Rogers and Pinetop Perkins, and a great one about the night Robert Cray cleared the House of Blues. I also asked him about a story Gerry told me before the show. The band had backed the legendary Nappy Brown at the Blues Music Awards in Tunica, MS during which Brown did a striptease. Brown threatened/promised to do it before taking the stage. While others tried to talk him out of it, Moss playfully egged him on. Hundt said he was glad he was to behind the organ.
To open the second set, Moss invited a member of the audience on stage to blow some harp. It turns out "Doug" and his three buddies were soon heading overseas to Iraq. When the number was over Moss decided to play a song from his most recent album, Play it 'Til Tomorrow. Despite some political overtones to the song, he explained "Mistakes From the Past" wasn't a protest song, just a true story. The band turned in a hard-hitting performance keyed by Moss' guitar and the deep thunder of Hundt's bass, slowing it to a crawl.
The rest of the set was lighter, once again allowing each member of the band to take a lead vocal. Hundt abandoned his bass and played some harmonica on one track. He also urged Carter to play some "disco high hat" on another tune. He obliged, which made for some great music and some comically bad dancing. If ever there was ever any doubt that alcohol is not a performance-enhancing drug, some of my fellow attendees provided all the proof the world will ever need. The dancing was bad, the music was good. Once again, so was the company.
When the show was over, Moss told stories of his youth and talked about some of the band's upcoming dates. Hundt and I talked about T-Bone Burnett and the new Allison Krauss/Robert Plant record as well as our abiding love of Gillian Welch. He thinks Time (The Revelator) is a nearly perfect album at a time when fewer artists bother to really make albums. We agree on that as well as the devastating power of "Dear Someone." I shook hands with the band as they got into their van and headed for my own car.
Most days I believe there are only two kinds of music: good and bad, and only one of those is worth concerning yourself with. Music stands on its own, apart from image, marketing, and gimmicks. If the music has life, it doesn't matter what friends or critics think. 10 million copies sold doesn't validate a record and there's no virtue in exclusivity, but there are exceptions.
It's sometimes nice to have the sense you're rooting for an underdog. The path Moss and his band have chosen doesn't lead to fortune so to do what these guys do you have to be driven by something else. Moss spent years on the road playing with and learning from men who created the Chicago blues tradition, and every night on stage he and his bandmates give it their all to pay respect to that tradition and help keep it alive. Even though the music stands apart and on its own, it's hard not to get a little more emotionally invested when you see nice guys making pure music for the joy it brings them; a joy they share with audiences big and small night after night after night.
Seeing Nick Moss & The Flip Tops helped me appreciate even more the tradition they keep alive. That circle draws a little tighter because Nick's words about Little Johnny and Hound Dog Taylor can be applied to he and his band. You don't have to know them to like them, but it doesn't hurt.