The first time I had the privilege of watching John Németh perform was at a small club called the Thunderbird Cafe in Pittsburgh in July of 2008.
John was at the beginning of his young career, and touring on the release of his first album for Blind Pig Records, “Magic Touch.”
I had already been impressed by his recordings — here was a young guy out of Boise, Idaho, with incredible harp skills and a vocal range to match, who made music that sounded like it had been dredged from a Chicago blues cellar in the 1950s.
And his live show was all that and more. I was hooked.
But that was a dozen years ago. Németh has since become an accomplished, award-winning musician who is comfortable enough with his talents to move fluidly from sensual soul to greasy funk to big band singer to down-home blues. All with considerable style, wit and amazing skill.
Out of all of this has blossomed Németh’s 10th album, “Stronger Than Strong” (Nola Blue Records). It’s hard to say that this one tops all others, simply because they have all been so good. But his latest works hard at being that kind of creation that pulls together all that you have been up to this point, and says, this is who I am now.
All of which simply means that “Stronger Than Strong finds John at the top of his musical game.
The album is a mixed bag of styles and substance, flowing smoothly from Németh’s vocals and electrifying harp work, all wrapped up tightly by his crackling band, The Blue Dreamers — guitarist Jon Hay, drummer Danny Banks and Matt Wilson on bass.
The very first track, “Come and Take It,” is a burst of rhythmic and hypnotic energy, with the vocal and harp work sounding like it was recorded in the room next to Robert Johnson. It has a strong sense of Mississippi Hill Country blues.
From there, “Fountain of a Man” works in a similar vein, heavy with Hay’s guitar, filled with tough rhythms, and a fierce harp solo. Hay, by the way, is just 19, but an exciting and gifted guitar man.
“Sometimes,” an old Little Junior Parker song, is one of just two covers on the the album. The other is John’s romantic take on the Jesse Belvin slow-dancing-real-close-and-tight classic, “Guess Who.” That the remaining ten tunes come from Németh’s musically fertile imagination is a tribute to how well he creates new music that sounds as though it’s as vintage as a ’55 Chevy. His writing overflows with originality, wit and just the magic touch of feelings.
Part of this album’s unique down-and-dirty live sound has to be credited to producer Scott Bomar, who formed the Bo-Keys, and operates Electraphonic Recording in Memphis.
But it helps that Németh and his Dreamers crank out just the right attitude for every track.
“Throw Me in the Water” cruises along with a soulful vocal and Hay’s furious guitar, “Chain Breaker” is a funky shuffling little search for love, “Bars” is a slyly provocative and bluesy essay on life’s timeless contradictions, “I Can See Your Love Light Shine” sounds almost like big-band gospel, with sharp vocal work.
There are more tracks, of course, 12 in all (unless you buy the heavyweight vinyl, which has only ten), and they all add up to a masterful album. There’s not a false note anywhere — lyrically, musically, vocally, or instrumentally. If you’re a John Németh fan, you need this album. If you’ve never tasted this magic musical elixir, you need to.
I’ve often wondered if there was an easy answer as to why performers like Németh do what they do. What drives them. What makes them create — in this case, music to soothe our souls and ease our troubled minds.
I put that question to John once, in a email interview that we did, and his answer has always stuck with me as one of the most interesting answers to those questions.
“I do it,” he said, “to make my demons sing and dance.”
Here’s a video of one of the album’s best songs, “Bars,” that should make the demons extremely happy:
01. Come and Take It (2:55)
02. Fountain of a Man (4:32)
03. Sometimes (3:36)
04. Throw Me in the Water (4:23)
05. Chain Breaker (4:30)
06. Bars (4:55)
07. I Can See Your Love Light Shine (3:17)
08. Depriving a Love (4:38)
09. Work for Love (6:12)
10. Guess Who (6:45)
11. She is My Punisher (3:20)
12. Sweep the Shack (3:46)