Nick Moss & The Flip Tops remain the most versatile and among the most potent blues bands on the contemporary blues circuit. Both of those attributes were prominently displayed in Huntsville on Wednesday night over the course of two plus sets.
Versatility has long been one of the Flip Tops strengths as band members routinely swap instruments and lead vocal duties. Anyone concerned the departure of multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt and the addition of two new members would hamper that versatility can rest easily. Frontman Moss (guitar, vocals, harmonica) is still backed by veterans Willie Oshawny (piano, vocals) Bob Carter (drums, vocals) and that strong core has already meshed with new bassist Nick Skilnik and organist Travis Reed.
Instruments and lead vocals were still swapped and solos were traded between Moss, Oshawny, and Reed throughout the evening. Just about everything you’ve ever loved about watching and hearing the Flip Tops play was still in evidence, but like all great bands, these guys have upped the stakes. It’s one thing to have the musical versatility to easily swap roles but another to achieve the performance art of Wednesday night. Whether by design or accident, each of the three show segments had its own distinct musical flavor and yet felt simultaneously connected.
The first set opened with a slow burn, kicking off with an instrumental jam before the first of seven songs from their latest album Privileged was performed. On the album, “Your Love’s a Lie” is a passionate accusation and lament. On stage — and benefitting from an outdoor venue — it burns with yearning and seems to float into the boundless sky. The fuse was lit and from there the first set exploded into a raucous, loud, blues-rock jam.
A re-worked version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Louise” and the scathing “Born Leader,” both from Privileged, were powder kegs of energy. Oshawny took a lead turn and gave the audience some hard-boiled boogie-woogie, backed by the muscular bass work of Skilnik and drummer Carter.
Carter then took his turn behind the microphone and led the band through a cover of “Route 66.” The energy and frenzy onstage had fully erupted and the band’s performance of this classic dared the chemically-brave to dance. A band cannot be held responsible for the unfortunate choreography of its audience.
When The Flip Tops returned for their second set, they returned ready to mix funk and groove with their Chicago blues roots. The rhythm section locked in and consistently drove the rest of the band forward with a propulsive, funk-flavored rhythm. Four more songs from Privilieged rolled out over the course of the set. Carter’s re-imagination of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” hinted at the band’s ability to pepper their blues with a hint of funk, but it was over the course of several songs from that second set including “She’s So Fine (Born Blind).” Oshawny’s “Wine-O Baby Boogie” (familiar to Moss fans who own the first Live at Chan’s CD) didn’t have the funk-infused rhythm of other songs in the set but the underlying groove made it feel right at home.
It would have been a hell of a night if the band had stopped there, but they came back for an abbreviated bonus set and what a treat it was. After a night of pounding some loud rockin’ blues and some funk-tinged rhythms, Carter got to turn down the volume and play the blues at a volume closer to his liking. The set opened with he, Moss, and Oshawny playing as a trio. Moss set his guitar down and picked up a harmonica and led the band through a pair of sublime, nocturnal blues that sounded oh so right. Fans familiar with the version of “Lonesome Bedroom Blues” from Chan’s 2 would have been amazed at how different yet effective it sounded in the stripped down setting. Before taking their final bow, Moss brought Reed and Skilnik back on stage and led them through an electric “Move Over, Morris.”
One night with Nick Moss & The Flip Tops serves as a brick to the head of those who would dismiss the blues as a historical relic or monolithic idiom. Moss showered plenty of credit and facetime with his sidemen onstage and marveled to me at their ability to really play together between sets. But it was the seemingly effortless way he channeled one inspired lead after another that shined brightest.
I pledged my third piece about last week’s 31st Blues Music Awards would be my final word on the subject until the DVD of the event was released, but I guess I’m not ready to let it go because with all due respect, the BMAs got it wrong. The best blues band was in Huntsville on Wednesday night. I’ve known that for awhile and voted accordingly. The majority of you cannot say the same. Nick Moss & The Flip Tops have landed on their feet and so will all of you, but not quite the same way.
When the fateful day comes and laps are assigned, I’ll be sitting in the shade sipping a tall, cold one while the rest of you run. Nick & Co. have been nominated 16 times and have yet to win. You’ve had your opportunities and you’ve not learned your lesson. You keep making the same mistake over and over, so now you run. There is a complex algorithm that calculates a multiplier determining how many laps you’ll all run for this.
I don’t even know what that means but it sounds to me like some of you are going to be on the track for awhile so best you lace them up and start stretching now. You can’t say you weren’t warned.