Nick David’s harmonica playing has a swagger – developed over thousands of one-nighters from Massachusetts to Memphis and from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, and even across the pond to Europe.
Or maybe it’s a swing, or a little extra hip-shake, just like the grooves generated by the powerhouse band he’s formed with four other kingpins of the New England blues scene: Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks.
Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks unites veteran musicians Nick David (a.k.a. Mr. Nick), “Lonely” Gus Carlson, Teddy B. (Bukowski) and Rick Rousseau for one of the region’s most formidable live outfits in any genre. But their hearts belong to blues.
Real blues. They play elegant, stomping and swinging classics like Little Walter’s “Mellow Down Easy,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “300 Pounds of Joy” and Wynonie Harris’ “Good Morning Judge.” Their bag of originals is a mix of rhumbas, jump blues, and boogies they’re developing for a debut album and currently taking to legions of fans in New England on their way to stages throughout the US and abroad.
“This band is a killer outfit,” says David. And that’s the truth. Everything comes together when they play: their deep mutual understanding and knowledge of blues, their originality and depth as players, and the band’s ability to put on a great show that brings people to their feet. It’s a blend that wins new converts wherever they perform.
“We all really dig being on stage making music together,” David affirms. The audiences loves it, but we love it just as much.” Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks came together just as David’s previous band, the popular and critically acclaimed Mr. Nick’s Blues Mafia, was busting up. That group, which was fueled by David’s graceful tradition-shaded singing and unique harmonica style, had a great run. They recorded two full-length CDs and an EP. And the band had the lead track – “Look At That Cadillac” – on the well-received 2005 blues compilation Fins, Chrome and the Open Road: A Tribute to the Cadillac. That disc found the group alongside Kim Wilson, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Maria Muldaur and other blues legends.
Over the course of their seven year history the Blues Mafia won the Boston Blues Challenge and was awarded the title of Boston’s Best Blues Band. The group was also voted Blues Act of the Year by Jam Music Magazine and went on to compete in the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where they were finalists in 2006.
During that period Rousseau, David, Carlson, and B. became friends. They shared bills at festivals and sat in at each other’s gigs, and along the way developed a mutual admiration based on their superb musicianship.
“One of the amazing things about the Dirty Tricks is that Rick and Gus are also experienced frontmen,” says David. “While I do most of the singing, make no mistake, either of those guys can handle the whole night on their own. Having two other great singers in the band opens up a lot more room for harmonies as well.”
Guitarslinger Carlson also led roadhouse heroes Lonely Gus and the One Night Stand. In the Dirty Tricks, his main job is blazing licks – like the gritty low-end picking that propels their percolating version of Jimmy McCracklin’s “Georgia Slop” and the slicing arcs of bent notes and scalding bursts of melody that ripple through Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.”
Teddy B. primarily wields his 1950s upright Kay bass in the band, but also comes to gigs equipped with an assortment of vintage Fender electrics. He’s played with soul greats Mighty Sam McClain and Toni Lynn Washington, as well as a host of New England blues artists including Cheryl Arena and K.D. Bell.
As well as being a crack drummer, Rousseau also sings and writes. For more than a half-decade he fronted popular blues, rock, and roots band Rhumboogie. Together B. and Rousseau are a living history of blues rhythm, able to leap from gritty shuffles to up-tempo jump blues to swampy backwoods grooves from tune to tune.
“Playing with these guys is one of the most rewarding musical experiences of my life,” says David.
The feeling’s assuredly mutual. It’s easy to buy a harmonica and work up a couple tunes, but it’s hard to play one like a real instrument. And David is a self-taught virtuoso who – while digging on the sounds of James Cotton, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Paul Delay and many other blues harmonica masters – picked up the harp and developed a wildly percussive original style that dazzles audiences and makes his recordings instantly recognizable.
Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks brings David’s singing front and center. Unlike the Blues Mafia, which was an unabashed harmonica band, Nick scales back a bit on his honking and focuses more on his vocals. So David’s vocal performances are more arcing and melismatic – perfect to handle the dramatic vocal range of Little Willie John’s demanding “Shakin’.” And his melodies are full of long-held relaxed notes punctuated by blunt phrases that underscore the lyrics of crowd-pleasing tunes like “Buzz Buzz Buzz.
None of that gets in the way of his patented nasty harp blowing. In fact David expands his harmonica abilities. On several songs he expands and extends his harp talents to recreate horn lines. And David’s increased use of chromatic harp along with Carlson’s flexible guitar chops allow them to share the horn parts of beloved chestnuts like “300 Pounds of Joy” and “Good Morning Judge.”
“We’re not a just-add-water blues band,” says David. “Much of the music we do has complex arrangements and requires more forethought and preparation. We enjoy challenging ourselves. And that’s another one of the many reasons why we love playing this music.”
By Ted Drozdowski