Dwight Ritcher &  Nicole Nelson

Dwight Ritcher & Nicole Nelson
1 + 1 = Whole Lotta Soul

By Jay N. Miller
July 2006

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Both Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson proved long ago that they could wail the blues with anyone.

Now, they’re trying to seduce listeners with a more subtle, scaled down, but no less feisty blend of blues, jazz, soul, gospel and pop.

Dwight Ritcher’s guitar skills were evident early on, and the New Jersey native led a rockin’ blues band that delighted New England audiences for years before he downshifted into a role as a more subtle, quiet, jazz-inflected artist. Brooklyn native Nelson burst onto the Boston blues scene as a young diva capable of Shemekia Copeland-like power, but with an Aretha-like soulful side, too.

Now both musicians have evolved into a duo that is standing New York City on its ear. With Ritcher’s minimalist gift for nuance and phrasing, and Nelson’s ability to cover every vocal angle from Norah Jones to Ruth Brown and back again, the Ritcher/Nelson duo has become an unlikely buzz band in the Gotham City.

So how did a blues guitarist with jazzy leanings connect with an energetic blues singer who’d made her name with her superbly dynamic shows?

We had always been fans of each other’s projects,” said Ritcher, on a recent trip to Boston. “This just started out as an experiment, booking a couple of gigs together, in Vermont on weekends. We just performed blues tunes we both loved. Then it grew into writing songs together and took on its own identity. She began playing tambourine, and with me on guitar, playing a bass line too, it became a pretty formidable two-man band.”

“It was a pretty organic process,” said Nelson. “It was an informal thing at first, simply because we were both in New York City, and knew each other from Boston. There isn’t much money to go around for bands in New York, so we decided to try some things with just the two of us. People began freaking out almost immediately and wanted CDs of us together. We only had our individual CDs at that point, but we eventually put our own EP recording together, just so we had something to sell at our shows.”

It didn’t take long for Ritcher and Nelson to earn some serious support, and some notable fans.

“We were lucky enough to get high-profile attention right away,” said Ritcher. “Agents began calling, and we ended up opening two shows for Dr. John and one for Maceo Parker at a blues festival, within our first three months. It was very encouraging, and we felt good about this project. Our harmonies and voicings are very appealing to me, and the songs and ideas, and the way we improvise together definitely felt great. This is what I want to be doing, and to get such validation so early was really rewarding. I think what I had been doing myself, as on my Radioman album, was jazzier stuff. This work with Nicole is maybe closer to the blues, with pockets of other stuff, but more rootsy as a whole. I’m someone who doesn’t like boundaries, and there is a lot of flexibility here.”

“Is it a logical step?” asked Nelson. “I don’t know, but I change a lot, and hear a lot, and tend to go from one musical phase to another. The key for me is that I have to feel it, and with so many different influences—pop, jazz, R&B, country, and hip-hop, it all becomes just a blend inside of me.”

“I loved the blues when I first started singing it,” Nelson explained. “I had never felt comfortable in the pop ballad category most people wanted to put me in, so the blues felt really good—a chance to stretch out. But I eventually outgrew straight blues covers, yet still wanted music with some freedom. My influences include a lot of things, from gospel to blues to pop to country now, but people still call me a blues artist. All those influences run so deep, it is hard to determine what should be the next logical step. That kind of decision never crosses my mind. I make my musical decisions more on the basis of, ‘Hey, I’m bored, let’s try this.’ I enjoyed this from the beginning, and when I started on tambourine, the tempos really picked up.”

“A really good part of this is that we can continually re-work songs,” Ritcher chimed in. “Like right now we’re doing a Jimmy Reed song in a whole new arrangement. This format allows us to keep things very open.”

But if the creative juices are flowing, the economic reality is that many clubs are closing and suffering from low attendance, and surely a two-person band isn’t exactly the dance-mania attraction a quintet might be. If Ritcher and Nelson gain more coffeehouse-type gigs, do they lose an equal number of classic roadhouse dates?

“We both have good relationships with many clubs and club owners all over the East Coast, due to our individual careers,” said Nelson. “That gives them the confidence that we can also do it with just two people. We have the luxury of their trust, and those previous relationships, that they know we can each draw a good crowd on our own, and together we are a good bet to draw a good crowd too. In Boston, I’ve been playing the Regatta Bar in Cambridge for years, and now we are also playing Club Passim there, which has a folkier edge. We play the Middle East for a more pop-appeal crowd, and then also get into the Vermont coffeehouses. So we can really work the whole spectrum this way.”

“It just makes sense financially,” Nelson added. “We can always add a bass and drummer if we get a big festival gig, or have to play a bigger venue, but the duo thing is so efficient. We can book and manage ourselves, and do our own public relations. We can travel by car easily, and we have the whole thing covered. We’d love to get a big record deal and all that support, but right now, the two of us are the only ones we have to worry about, and we’ve got it covered. We love the flexibility, and the creative freedom, and the responsibility, and the rewards, are all just on us.”

“I think that’s accurate,” Ritcher said. “People that know us individually will come out to these familiar places to hear us together. I love the example of Harry’s Cajun Bar in Hyannis, where people love to dance. We played there a month ago, and they are used to five-piece bands. But the fact is we had them out on the floor and dancing all night long, with just us two. That gig was quite an eye-opener for us, because it was very empowering for us to make that format work in a place like that.”

“We might cover anything from Oasis to Jimmy Reed,” Nelson added, “and we will entertain the people and keep them dancing all night.”

The songwriting collaboration has also been a boon to the new duo, who’ve found common ground in their approach to the craft.

“Each of us brings songs to the table for the twosome,” Ritcher said. “But we find ourselves writing more and more together. We will also cover each other’s tunes from our individual careers. Some of the stuff we do on the spot, the improvs, we will save—whatever we can remember. It might just be a riff or a groove, but we just try and keep it real, relaxed, and open, so that everything is fair game.”

“Dwight is really the creative force behind the songwriting,” Nelson interjected. “I’ll have occasional ideas, but he has new ones every day. I’m getting better with lyrics, but then he’ll pore over them and make them perfect. I’m just glad to be around him, and be able to absorb his creative process. He crafts melodies, hooks, words—it’s a great learning experience for me.”

“For me the big difference is that I’ve never been in a band before with another singer,” Ritcher said. “Her harmonies are just fabulous. I never understood why the Beach Boys sounded so good, but now I see why those vocals are so incredible. We’ve really locked in to each other vocally, yet the songs don’t come out the same every night, so the material doesn’t ever feel stale. It just naturally flows along, and occasionally turns corners.”

That artistic unity is also reflected in the pair’s onstage performance. It is no secret that the two are also a couple, but aside from that their musical bonding has been one of the most remarkable aspects of their working together—even to them.<

“The main thing when you write a song, I believe,” said Ritcher, “is to try not to waste lyrics or melody. The nice thing about this format is that all the vocals really come through, so the lyrics all stand up. It is nice to be able to hear all the vocal inflections and harmonies. Unless you can afford to have a really well-rehearsed band, you don’t normally find that with bigger bands. Here the volume and nuances are all right there, and we can do improv with our vocals without cluttering up the sound mix. If we were to add more instruments, we might lose the sensitivity of the whole project.”

“I can’t think of any negatives to playing with just the two of us,” Nelson agreed. “It was so much more comfortable for me, it just felt like coming home. We are sharing that other language, that musical language, and we are continually astounded by that communication we reach on another level. Right now, it would be more difficult for me to go back to a band. Performing with Dwight, it often seems like we’re mind-reading each other. That kind of powerful, beautiful synergy is something you always seek—and seldom find—as a musician. And it just keeps getting better and better.”

That chemistry leads to some very surprising turns of direction mid-set, or even mid-song, and both musicians are relishing the opportunity to create new music every night on stage.

“I’ve never had this much ability to be spontaneous on stage, where two people can read each other so well,” said Nelson. “I never had that feeling with a big band. Dwight and I might make up a song from scratch on stage. Every night we are on our toes, and on the edge, and the audience knows it. Playing to the limit of what you can do, in that special moment, is a feeling you can’t describe.”

“I think what’s happening with us is like the early blues guys, like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, where their music had the freedom to go in any direction,” Ritcher said. “Much of that stuff, especially the early Delta bluesmen, had songs that always had the groove and the feeling, but might change from night to night. It was not as important where the song goes, as just having that groove and following it wherever it went. This band, I feel, is kind of like having two Lightnin’ Hopkins, because we’re taking it wherever it goes every night.”

“I used to be Dwight’s favorite performer,” said Nelson with a chuckle. “But now that he’s got YouTube, he’s discovered all these old videos and Lightnin’ Hopkins is his favorite.”

“It’s an endless file-sharing resource,” Ritcher said of the internet site (www.YouTube.com). “People send in this vintage footage that no one else has ever seen. Just type in an artist’s name and see what they have on file. It also represents a great opportunity for independent artists like us to share and expose their work to the world.”

The duo has heard from several record labels, and there is interest in making an album for major release, although both are cautious about artistic control. Mainly the success of smaller, more organic acts like Norah Jones is starting to awaken record companies to the lure of real music made by real people.

“People are sick of the American idol-type baloney,” Nelson said. “They always ask us “why aren’t you guys on the radio?’ We tell them we’re working on that. So many other roots acts, many from Boston like us, Mieka Pauley and Ryan Montbleau for instance, are also having great success in the New York clubs.”

“What is that current hit by the Scottish girl?” asked Ritcher. “K.T. Tunstall, that song has real feeling and a real roots appeal. You can tell immediately that song is not fake, and she sings it so that you can feel how real it is.”

The twosome will be heading to the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Maine on July 16. The Ritcher/Nelson duo will be playing at Club Passim in Harvard Square, Cambridge on July 21. The night after that they have a showcase gig at B.B. King’s Blues Club in downtown Manhattan. Later in the summer they’ll hit the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center on August 4, and the White Mountain Blues and Boogie Fest on August 19. And on September 10 they’ll appear at Heatherfest 2006 in Norton, Mass.

“I feel so fortunate my fans have followed me through all my changes and growth periods,” Nelson added. “I must have the most understanding group of fans and friends of anyone, and they always greet me with open arms and encouragement, whatever I do. I have always gotten great support from New England fans, which is why I’ll always come back and play that area as often as I can. Boston fans are the first one who welcomed me to music, and I never forget that.”

www.dwightandnicole.com

www.nicolenelsonband.com

www.dwightritcherband.com

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