Listening to The McCrary Sisters’ vocals on the new single from Blue Rose Code reminded me of their blistering show back in August at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. This also reminded me of the stellar work carried out by their Scottish band and in particular the guitar work of Joe Nisbet Jr, guitar work which had also graced Ag’s Connolly’s show a few days earlier. Nisbet is a bit of a hidden treasure. He’s worked extensively with The Proclaimers and China Crisis and is the regular go to player for Dick Gaughan and Justin Currie. He’s the one bending the strings and playing those country licks on Ags Connolly’s excellent album How About Now and was up on stage with Dougie McLean for the closing song of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Caledonia.
Seems like Mr. Nisbet and his buddy, bass player Nico Bruce, are like a Scots version of the wrecking crew, laying down some wicked music but forever in the background. I was intrigued to discover then that he had released an album at the back end of 2013 called The Gospel According To Mr. Niz, a copy of which he gracefully provided Blabber’n’Smoke with. The intrigue grew when some Googling unveiled the story behind the album of which he says, “Took 4 days to record but had been 30 years in the making.” It turns out that Joe Nisbet Sr. was an evangelical preacher and when Joe Jr. was a kid he accompanied his dad on a two-month tour of the American South with pop preaching each night accompanied by Gospel choirs. This, says Nisbet, was, “the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the classic sound of the black gospel quintets of the 40’s and 50’s.” It abided during his tenures with China Crisis and The Proclaimers but when Justin Currie persuaded Nisbet to add his vocals on Currie’s songs and then to sing himself he was finally able to make his own Gospel record which we will now delve into.
The Gospel According to Mr. Niz has 13 songs, the majority based on vocal quartet songs from the 40s and 50s with two covers of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. There are no choirs or harmonies here however with Nisbet handling the vocals himself. For a guitarist who doesn’t sing he does a fine job here, his voice at times recalling John Mayall in the late sixties proving that white men can sing the blues even though the accent is sometimes not spot on. However and remarkably there are times when he almost reminds one of a young Elvis crooning the gospel, most notably on Maybe It’s You and Peace In The Valley. It’s a stripped back album, the basic set up being Nisbet on guitar, Nico Bruce on double bass and drums from Keith Burns while Neil Weir adds trumpet on occasion. Producer Phil Cunningham (of Hogmanay fame) captures the bare sound as if they were in the Sun studios, the bass snapping and slapping, the guitar threshing like Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s. There are moments however when Nisbet’s guitar wizardry is astounding, the shimmering effects on Walk With Me up there with Ry Cooder’s brooding soundtrack work.
Nisbet, not an evangelist himself, takes liberties throughout, changing and adding lyrics to suit his take on these songs. The listening experience is greatly enhanced by his notes on the songs which are enlightening and witty such as his comment on his pulverising version of I John which he says, “opens with John the Divine on Patmos and ends with Robert Fripp in Berlin.” His rendition of Joe Louis which incorporates The Walls Of Jericho as originally sung by the Dixieaires is a delight and the one occasion here when he’s compelled to add some harmonies. While songs such as Samson & Delilah, I Am A Pilgrim and Peace In The Valley will be familiar to many I’m sure that aficionados of gospel music will find that Nesbit has delivered a very singular take on the genre, a take that is inspiring and a great listen.
I’m sure there’s more to tell here, the image of a wee Edinburgh lad in tented prayer meetings in the rural South 30 years ago surely deserves some inquiry, a sure fire documentary for the Beeb perhaps. Anyway, I’ll leave it to Mr. Nesbit Jr. to tell it more eloquently than I can manage.
Buy The Gospel According To Mr. Niz here