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Paul Nelson Injects the Blues into Christmas

by Eric Althoff

In this festive time of year, when we are meant to put aside differences and focus on that which binds us, can we at least agree on one premise: There needs to be some new Christmas tunes. 

Better yet, a carol of the straight-up blues variety. For blues can turn even the happiest time of the year into a blissful paeon of pain. 

Accordingly, Paul Nelson is currently on a social media blitz with his holiday-themed composition, “All I Got for Christmas Was the Blues and a Broken Heart,” co-performed with Anthony Krizan of the Spin Doctors. The yuletide anti-poem features hilariously downtrodden lyrics like: “Even Santa Claus done let me down. If things don’t get better by New Year’s, I’m gonna ride me a reindeer straight outta town.” 

Nelson is all but certain to perform this Christmas composition for audiences at Saturday evening’s show at Madam’s Organ in D.C.’s happening Adams Morgan neighborhood. 

“I studied with a teacher here on the East Coast that was grooming studio musicians. So, I knew if I was going to pursue this as a career, I would also have to learn many styles,” Nelson said of his early exposure to blues, jazz, rock and country while growing up in New York.  “Because of the way music is now, the fans and the people that appreciate music expect musicians to have more of a variety on one recording—or 〈even〉 within that one recording.”

But it is unquestionably within blues that Nelson has made his name, so much so that he has jammed alongside Eric Clapton, Slash, Buddy Guy and the current bluesman of the moment, Joe Bonamassa.

“I’ve played with them all. Except for 〈Jeff〉 Beck,” Nelson said with a hearty laugh, adding that he nonetheless knows the guitar virtuoso socially.

However, one of the legendary bluesmen Nelson did get to play alongside—for many years—was the legendary Johnny Winter. 

“He had to learn slide 〈guitar〉 behind closed doors because it wasn’t acceptable in the venues he played at,” Nelson recalls of his onetime bandleader. “Then all of a sudden a Robert Johnson album came, and everybody embraced that and started learning 〈slide〉 riffs.” 

“〈Winters〉 was three or four years ahead of the game. He already knew all the tunes.” 

Like himself, Nelson describes Winter’s education in music as a catholic one, focusing not just on blues but on jazz and rock and other styles. This informed Winter’s compositions and made him more accessible to new audiences. Nelson has tried to emulate that modus in his own career.

“I saw players just playing one style like jazz. God love them, but they didn’t work” outside of the recording studio, Nelson said. “There’s a new breed of musicians that are able to do 〈much〉 more.”

As examples, Nelson points to fellow bluesman Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, whose sound Nelson says incorporates the jazz stylings of Robben Ford as well as the rock modality of Eric Johnson. Another is Nelson’s friend Warren Haynes, who is as likely to play an AC/DC tune as to cover songs by the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama. 

“These guys that have studied from a lot of different styles have been doing this for years, but only now it’s acceptable to do it,” Nelson said of the genre mingling. “Even stations like 〈SiriusXM’s〉 Bluesville are playing this.” 

“It’s not just traditional blues anymore,” Nelson said of the current paradigm, adding that it even incorporates Southern rock’s influence. “It’s ‘Mutt Rock,’” he said with a chuckle. “It has everything.”

Nelson studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he soon learned he would need to complement classroom studies with one-on-one tutoring. His private instructors included heavy hitters Mike Stearns, Steve Kahan and even Steve Vai. 

Nelson in turn also taught guitar, imparting his knowledge to the next generation of ax-slingers. When asked if any of his students specifically seek him out, much as Nelson once came to Vai, Nelson said that even at his level, his name doesn’t reach as far in the cultural firmament as do those of his heroes. However, musicians have come to him to produce their records given Nelson’s track record behind the mixing board.

As a hired gun, Nelson continued to play in Winter’s group until the Texan’s sudden death in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2014 at the age of 70. Nelson describes his late bandleader as not only a mentor and friend, but also a father figure. 

“I stepped in and helped him with all his demons. And I cleaned him up,” Nelson said, likely referencing Winter’s frequent battles with substance abuse. “The result was the ‘Step Back’ album and both of us getting Grammys.”

Nelson recalls once nudging Winter to ape one of B.B. King’s frequent rituals, wherein the “King of the Blues” would step out on stage and take a sip of water from a blue cup, sending the crowd into a cheering frenzy. On a European date, Winter mimicked King’s old move, which worked like gangbusters. 

“He turned to me onstage and said, ‘Oh my god, Paul, you were right!’” Nelson said, adding his retort to Winter was that they were in front of a crowd and should discuss it more later.

When asked how he would like Winter to be remembered, Nelson says that his friend was not only one of the greatest bluesmen, but also as versed in the artform as anyone living or deceased.

“He listened to blues music from when he woke up ‘til two in the morning,” Nelson said. “He took me under his wing and turned me onto all these recordings for how to work on phrasing and the slide guitar. I’ll carry that with me the rest of my life.”

And despite his tremendous gifts, Winter was also blessed with a certain humility. Winter frequently told Nelson he was better at certain aspects of guitar playing, but this didn’t make him feel threatened in any way. 

“I had to be respectful 〈because〉 it was his” ensemble Nelson said. “He gave me solos and we did double 〈solos during concerts〉. But at soundcheck he’d say, ‘I hear you doing stuff that even I didn’t think I could do.’ Oh, I appreciated that.” 

Nelson said that his own show with the Paul Nelson Band is a love letter to the blues and its history. Furthermore, Nelson’s standing as a blues-playing guitarist-singer at center stage puts him among what he described as a “dying art” of performer type.

“Of course, I’ll play some Johnny Winter stuff in nod to him,” he said, adding that his show also incorporates blues standards and his own compositions. “And they’ll see a lot of improvisation, talking back and forth with the crowd. It’s entertainment.”

When asked what’s the key to maintaining his sanity on the road, Nelson says it’s important to surround himself with musicians with whom he not only gels musically but also interpersonally.

“You’re on stage with them a short period of time versus the time it takes to get there and leave,” he said. “〈The ensemble〉 has to be guys that are talented because I want my shows to be the best they possibly can and have great 〈chemistry〉 with people in the living quarters that we’ve chosen.”

“It’s an instant family you’re forced into.”

Paul Nelson will be performing December 7th at Madam’s Organ in Washington, D.C.

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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