Austin bluesman Johnny Nicholas ‘Hell Bent’ on Hawaii Island

  • Photo by Brandon Aguilar Austin bluesman Johnny Nicholas and Hell Bent will play three shows on the Big Island with the Honokaa High School Dragon Jazz Band horn section, 7 p.m. Friday Jan. 26, at the Palace Theater in Hilo, 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Honokaa People's Theatre, and 4-7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 at Gertrude's Jazz Club in Kailua-Kona.

“He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”

Those lyrics from Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim” weren’t written about Johnny Nicholas, but could’ve been. Starting in the mid-1960s, barely out of high school, the Austin blues singer and multi-instrumentalist honed his chops with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Big Walter Horton, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Johnny Shines, but he’s best known for his Grammy-winning stint in the Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel. Born and bred in Rhode Island, his voice is as rich, deep, textured and Southern as Louisiana sorghum. His good friend, collaborator and fellow Austinite, blues-and-boogie piano woman Marcia Ball describes Nicholas with an oxymoron: “innovative traditionalist.”

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There’s nothing contradictory about Nicholas’ blues and roots music, however. Nicholas and his band, Hell Bent — guitarist-mandolinist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, bassist Bruce Hughes and drummer John Chipman — will play three Big Island concerts: 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26, at the Palace Theater in Hilo; 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, at Honokaa People’s Theatre; and 4-7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar in Kona. The Palace is familiar stomping grounds — Nicholas has played there with Hell Bent, and also backed Ball and Delbert McClinton at the venerable Hilo theater.

“The Palace is just a great venue,” Nicholas told the Tribune-Herald earlier this month. “That, of course, is just icing on the cake. Any of us over here on the mainland just love to come to Hawaii. We haven’t played the Honokaa People’s Theatre yet, but we’re looking forward to that. And Gertrude’s in Kona is supposed to be a great place.”

When Nicholas and Ball played the Palace with lap-steel virtuoso Cindy Cashdollar in 2015, the Grammy Foundation Award-winning Honokaa High School Jazz Band opened the show under the direction of Gary Washburn. In addition, Nicholas and Ball were backed by a group of Dragon horn players. The blues legends were so impressed with Washburn and his students, they took them on their statewide tour.

“We had such a blast with those kids. They were so badass,” Nicholas said. “Gary’s a gifted teacher, obviously. They came to Kauai, Maui, Honolulu — they played at the Hawaii Theater with us. They just killed it, everywhere. They’d come up during our set, the horns. There was nobody going, ‘Ah, this is so cute,’ with some bad notes. They played, man. They’re great. I enjoyed playing with the kids a lot.”

The Honokaa band will return, this time around, with an all-female horn section — Terri Connors and Jeanne Altura on trumpet, Mollie Green on trombone and Zhanelyn Cacho on tenor sax.

Washburn said the opportunity for his students to play with Nicholas and his band is an educational opportunity “not normally offered in the high school education system.”

“When touring with Johnny and his band members in 2015, I witnessed his band members willingly tutor the young musicians to help improve their musicianship, inspire developing improvisational skills and have fun at the same time,” Washburn said.

Palace concertgoers will get a bonus, as Hilo sax man Randy Skaggs and his band, Soul on a Roll, will open the show. It’ll be a little different lineup than usual, with Trever Veilleux on guitar, Brian Crist on bass and Zach Var on drums.

Nicholas’ latest original release, “Fresh Air,” was recognized in the January 2017 issue of Downbeat Magazine as one of the five best blues albums of 2016.

“Free of clichés, the album reveals a sense of self-discovery in the process of recording strong, quick-witted originals and shining arrangements of Willie Dixon’s ‘Back Door Man’ and Sleepy John Estes’ ‘Kid Man Blues,’” the magazine proclaimed.

“To get recognized as one of the top CDs with Downbeat was a pretty cool deal. I was pretty jazzed about it, man,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas also re-released his first album, 1977’s “Too Many Bad Habits.” In addition, the CD re-release contains a bonus disc of previously unreleased performances. Although the first vinyl pressing of the album sold out, Blind Pig Records refused to order a second pressing and dropped the album from its catalog in 1978 after Nicholas joined Asleep at the Wheel and stopped touring under his own name.

“What a bunch of dumbasses,” Nicholas said.

Artists in the original sessions include Big Walter Horton on harmonica and vocals, Johnny Shines on guitar and vocals, Boogie Woogie Red on piano and vocals, plus Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson. The title track, “Too Many Bad Habits,” was Nicholas’ first original song.

“All those cats I hung out with, man, like Robert Lockwood and Johnny Shines and Roosevelt Sykes, they all encouraged me,” he said. “They all told me, ‘You need to be writin’ your own songs. Don’t just be coverin’ old Little Walter songs. You’re Johnny Nicholas. You need to be yourself. That’s when I wrote ‘Too Many Bad Habits,’ because they encouraged me to be my own man and write my own songs and not be a copycat.”

Admission to the Palace show is $25 general, $35 side reserved and $45 center reserved, available at the box office or by phone with credit card at 934-7010 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Palace ticket prices are $5 more the day of the show.

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Tickets for the Honokaa show are $25 general, $35 preferred seating. Cover charge is $25 for the Kona show and seating is limited.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.