It’s hard to imagine many musicians hustling like Nigel Hall.
The former Maine keyboardist and vocalist has explored the musical world on tour and in the studio with some of the live-music industry’s leading luminaries: Warren Haynes, Robert Randolph, Tedeschi-Trucks, John Scofield, and of course, Soulive and Lettuce (they play the State, Sept. 10) – the dueling Eric Krasno projects that pulled him out of Maine in the first place in the late 2000s.
These are musicians and bands who ride tour buses as a matter of habit, known for instrumental prowess and shows that never quite wind up the same way twice. And like tends to stick with like; you don’t find yourself playing with pros like these unless you’ve got serious chops.
Now firmly ensconced in New Orleans’ legendary music community, Hall is in demand for his commanding combo package of charisma and competence, a monster on the keys, with powerful vocals he can control like he’s turning a knob and a stage presence that is a mix of charm and danger. You never know where things are going to veer next.
It’s no wonder Hall has collected an all-star cast for his third solo record, a followup to 2015’s “Ladies & Gentlemen” (2009’s “The Face of Things to Come” may not be on Spotify, but Mainers remember it and his brilliant cover of Tony McNaboe’s “Destination”). The new “Spiritual” brings together a suite of influences, from bop-style jazz to New Orleans funk to guitar-fronted rock and roll, but it is fundamentally about the performing life. Gigging. Doing whatever it is the crowd wants you to do in that moment.
It is there in the opening “Jazzy (Intro),” where crowd noise greets us and laughs at Hall’s little warning about adult content to come, and it is there in the finish, where jazz-funk luminary George Duke has been recorded speaking to Hall and bounced between the left and right channels, riffing on finding meaning in a life that can be very hard, indeed.
“Take me to the next level,” Duke implores Hall. “Do what I can’t do, and you can do that.”
It must be thrilling for Hall, who has covered Duke in the past and clearly is a student of a broad canon. But it’s no wonder: Hall does things you just don’t hear that often, eschewing verse-chorus constructions and defying general expectations to create songs that are challenging and wild and intimate in the way he invites you inside his innermost circle.
It’s in many ways a long way from the Motown revival work Hall was doing on songs like 2010’s “Never Gonna Let You Go,” which essentially predicted the rise of Leon Bridges.
It is especially fun to hear Hall harmonize with himself in layered vocal tracks, do call and response with himself, even. On “Gotta Go to Work,” the title phrase chimes in after Hall’s litany of declarations: “I said I know you want to do it all night, baby/ But I gotta go to work.” And on “Sun,” Hall has created a lovely conceit where he’s doing a variety of things that are phrased with a finishing “in the” – before blasting in with a trebled “SUN” as a response.
I never want it to stop.
On “Caribou” he never even articulates words, just scats out “bub-ub-op-away-ee-oh” kind of phrases over a staccato Latin number put together by DJ Harrison, co-producer of the record as recording and mixing engineer at Jellowstone Studios in Richmond, Virginia. That Hall and Harrison are doing everything on this song seems almost impossible.
Not that there’s a shortage of help available.
Marcus King (who opened for Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats this past weekend at Thompson’s Point) is a titan as the guitar root of the Hendrix-like “Change Directions,” where Hall beats his chest: “They tell me how to live/ But they ain’t got what I got.” Old friend Ryan Zoidis, the Rustic Overtones sax player who introed Hall to Krasno, stops in for an effortless and utterly smooth “Spiritual Interlude,” 70 seconds of flitting soprano horn work. And Jeff Coffin – of Dave Matthews Band and Bela Fleck fame – contributes a pure and fluttering flute foil to Hall’s grounded Fender Rhodes on the instrumental “Brother’s Love.”
It’s a true musician’s record, full of performances that make other players remind themselves to practice more. But it’s never in question who’s at the core of the effort, with Hall’s vocals on a piece like “Yesterday” dripping with soul and delivered with impressive precision.
“How did I get to where I am?” he wonders. “I haven’t got a clue.”
Listen to this record and I think you may be able to hazard a guess and help him out.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
RIP to Kip Brown, an absolute rock of the Portland music scene for a good 50 years or so. It was a remarkable run — from Rock Candy to the Wild Hearts to the Pontiffs to Mink Wilde and the Gentlemen Callers. Our thoughts are with his family and the countless musicians who had the good fortune to play alongside him.
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Kalie Shorr, “Love Child” — The Mainer turned Nashvillian continues to crank out catchy hits, this one a pop-rock nostalgia vehicle with repeating electric guitar hook straight out of the grunge era.
• Elijah Ocean, “Honky Tonk Hole” — It seems almost impossible that this kid was in Loverless, but there’s nothing wrong with the pure country he’s plying now, full of steel guitar and whining fiddle.
• Quad, “The Great Escape” — The cello-drum duo are back with a thunderous piece of almost metal, trading heavily on the low end and veering into Morphine territory.
• Slawth and Dynamo-P, “Stun Gun (Remix)” — This’ll maybe get taken down at some point, as it robs the beat from Czarface and MF Doom, but “rest in peace to MF Doom and DMX” and “I don’t deserve to profit off of this art,” and, well, this is pretty fun.
• The Cups, “Treasure” — Released in early 2020, this is worth digging for, a lo-fi and often rambling piece from Theodore Treehouse’s Ian Ferrel and friends. Glad I found it.
— Sam Pfeifle