Blues Fest debuts at Rex
The first New England Blues Festival was a modest one-off featuring regional bands, including Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks, led by organizer Nick David. Buoyed by its success, David brought it back the following year and soon was attracting national talent like Chicago heavy-hitter Nick Moss, and the event scaled to multiple venues.
The annual show has attracted a bevy of talent over the years, including Muddy Waters’ son Big Bill Morganfield. David’s former group Mr. Nick & the Dirty Tricks backed him up in 2018. “I get goosebumps talking about it,” David recalled in 2019, “because that’s as close as I’ll ever get to playing with Muddy.”
David always hoped the show would stop in his hometown of Manchester; that will finally happen on Sunday, Jan. 29, on the stage of the Rex Theatre. “I’ve been talking to the Rex off and on for the last few years,” David said by phone recently. “I really like the venue a lot.”
The 13th festival features four guitar heroes. There’s headliner Mike Zito, Moss, playing for his fourth time, Roberto Morbioli, and Paul Size, the latter a member of David’s latest group, and concert house band, The Wicked Lo-Down.
Size is a legend in the blues rock world dating back to his stint in L.A.-by-way-of-Texas band The Red Devils, whose early ’90s residency at the gritty King King club attracted movie stars and music legends. They made an album with Mick Jagger that was never released (one cut was on Jagger’s Very Best compilation), and backed Bruce Willis on his Return of Bruno LP. Rick Rubin produced their lone live album, in 1995.
The Wicked Lo-Down grew out of a fruitful collaboration in late 2019 between David, Size and another guitarist, later replaced by Jeff Berg and augmented by a rhythm section of Nick Toscano and Mike Law. Hobbled by lockdown, they made an album, We Hot, in mid-2020 that stayed shelved for almost two years before its release last November. It’s a barn-burner, with a churning title cut and the Blasters-adjacent “Lena” among the standouts.
They’re now gigging and shopping the record to labels, including Zito’s moniker Gulf Coast. David met the guitarist in 2021 at the White Mountain Boogie & Blues Festival. Zito passed on releasing it, even though he reportedly “loved” the album, according to David. “Nobody was willing to sign us because we weren’t out there gigging … how are they going to make money off us if we’re not playing? Who knows who we are?”
Zito has had a string of blues chart-topping albums in the recent past, beginning with 2018’s First Class Life and a Chuck Berry tribute collection that had assistance from Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Robben Ford, Luther Dickinson and Sonny Landreth. Zito’s most recent disc, Resurrection, received a Blue Music Award last year for Best Blues Rock Album.
The chat with Zito did get David a headliner for his festival, which has two Massachusetts dates, Salisbury and Norwood, along with Hartford, Connecticut, before its New Hampshire finale. “Mike and I have some stuff in common,” David said. “He was into doing it, so we were able to get it together this year.”
Morbioli is an Italian guitarist who comes Stateside once a year. David met him over a decade ago when he appeared on John Guregian’s Blues Deluxe radio show. “It was on the UMass Lowell radio station,” David explained. “I was living there with my wife at the time, and she spoke fluent Italian. We went down there, hung out and played a few songs. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Finally, along with his status as a fest perennial, Moss created an interesting conundrum for David from the time they met.
“I got confused for him often; we’re both similar-looking,” he reported of the guitarist, who rose to fame with Nick Moss & the Pop Tops. “We both had big greasy pompadours, and we’re big guys named Nick. I saw a picture of him once and thought he was me. I was like, why do I have a guitar in my hand? Oh, it’s because that’s not me.”
13th Annual New England Winter Blues Festival
When: Sunday, Jan. 29, 8 p.m.
Where: The Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester
Tickets: $23 at palacetheatre.org
Featured photo: Mike Zito. Photo by Scott Lukes.