Paul Nelson Returns
The Grammy Award-winning producer/guitarist is bringing his Badass Generation and more back to northern Michigan
By Ross Boissoneau | July 1, 2017
Paul Nelson has won a Grammy Award and performed in front of millions. The onetime guitarist and producer for famed blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter has toured the world and been on TV, playing on The Late Show with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Now he’s returning to northern and western Michigan, performing in Pentwater, Baldwin, Reed City, Manistee and Cadillac. And he’s loving every minute of it. “We had such a good time last time. The music plays to the heartland,” he said of the songs he and the band played, primarily from his 2016 release, Badass Generation.
The recording is a modern take on the guitar-centric, bluesy rock Nelson grew up with: Free, the Allman Brothers, Boston, Aerosmith. It bears the influence of his time playing the blues with Winter as well. “It’s retro. Everybody says they love it,” said Nelson.
That retro sound was very deliberate. Nelson tried his best to reproduce the sounds that inspire him — from guitar heroes like Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, and Angus Young — with original music that crosses musical boundaries: country, blues, metal, even singer/songwriter, as on the mostly-acoustic “Please Come Home.” He says Badass Generation has found an audience with listeners of all stripes. “People who listen to Led Zeppelin like it, people who like the blues — the record’s hitting with a broad batch of fans.”
While he and the band play the material, don’t expect it to sound exactly like the original recording. Nelson says the looseness of the live shows allows him and his bandmates a chance to stretch out on the material. “Oh yeah. I’ll go out on a tangent, go into Jeff Beck (licks) or different changes. The listeners are open to it.
“It’s a format for improvisation,” he continued. “It opens up the musicians to do more. Johnny Winter was keen on that. It’s all blues-based.”
While the band with which Nelson played last year was composed of the same players as on the recording, this year finds new blood. Ethan Isaac is the new vocalist, Jeff Hatcher is on drums, and Jeff Howell from Foghat is playing bass. “The lineup’s gonna change. It’s whoever wants to play and who’s available. That keeps it fresh,” says Nelson.
That doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his former bandmates, singer Morton Fredheim in particular. “Morton’s in Norway, so it’s not easy to get him here, but we’re still writing [together] for the next album. When we go to Europe, I’ll use Morton,” says Nelson. “Lineups can change, but the approach is the same. It’s great to play with other musicians.”
That plan of attack works in the studio as well. Nelson says when he records, he’ll add additional guitar parts, keyboards where applicable, and the like. On the road, he goes back to the familiar guitar/bass/drums lineup with a vocalist out front. “I like the four-piece. I want a core of four guys that can make it sound thick enough.”
The Berklee-educated Nelson has taken lessons from the likes of Steve Vai, Steve Khan, and Mike Stern. He learned enough and practiced enough to become a studio pro. That’s where he connected with Winter. After recording and writing some songs for the renowned musician, Nelson was asked by Winter to join him on the road. He became Winter’s producer, a role continues to fulfill with others as well. He still performs on others’ albums and works as a producer and arranger.
He manages to balance it with his own music, even while on the road. “When you’re on tour, you’re on the bus for 14 hours. The cell phone and hotel become your office,” Nelson said. “Offers are just coming in. Some things have just been talked about with others, so I can’t talk about them. I surround myself with music, either in the studio or touring. I’m fortunate. I know how to organize. I find time and energy for our thing.”
Nelson will be forever grateful for his time with Winter. He first joined the blues master in 2003, and went on to record with him and produced both Step Back and its predecessor, Roots. Both he and Winter thought Step Back would be a landmark recording, and they were right. Winter told Nelson, “If we don’t get a Grammy for this, they’re nuts!” Unfortunately, while on tour in Europe, Winter passed away before their Grammy Award win for Best Blues Album was announced.
Immediately following his Michigan dates, Nelson heads north and east across the border, to the Blues World International Festival in Montreal. But whether it’s in Montreal, onstage on TV, or in downtown Cadillac, Nelson says the thrill for him is the same. “Playing stuff you created and seeing the response of the audience to hearing it … ? You can only do that live. You’re not with them on radio or CD.”
Retro-rock-and-blues-hungry audiences have a host of opportunities to catch Nelson and his band play around northern Michigan this summer:
July 4 Manistee Rotary Gazebo
July 5 Gull Landing, Pentwater
July 6 Cadillac Rotary Pavilion
July 7 Crossroads Guitar Showcase, Reed City
July 8 Wenger Pavilion, Baldwin
July 9 Gull Landing restaurant, Pentwater
For more information, visit PaulNelsonGuitar.com.