Minutes before the start of his set at the Waterfront in Norwich, England, Jared James Nichols spies me lurking in the photo pit. Tonight, looking more than ever like the 6'4” bastard love child of James Hetfield and Ted Nugent, he bounds over to talk shop.
“I’m playing a cool guitar tonight, man,” he tells me, with characteristic enthusiasm.
“I know, Jared,” I reply, assuming that he’s talking about his recently released (and very nice) Epiphone Signature Les Paul, “Old Glory.”
“No, you don’t, brother,” he smirks, gesturing at the flight case in his right hand. “1960.”
With that tantalizing prospect of guitar nerdery lingering, Nichols takes to the stage.
And, appropriately enough given the vintage of guitar he’s carrying, he proceeds to tear it up like it’s 1969.
This, folks, is back-to-basics, old school blues-rock the way it should be done: a three-piece band with no gimmicks, just incendiary playing.
Jared leads the charge with reckless abandon; a true rock ‘n’ roll front man who recalls the legends of a bygone age. His bluesman snarl matches the intensity of his pure, raw playing. With no pedals and no pick, Jared’s thunderous sound is all in the fingers, and the effect is shattering.
Halfway into tonight’s proceedings, the aforementioned 1960 comes into play. It’s a Gibson Les Paul Standard in classic Sunburst. For Nichols, the self-proclaimed Blues Power revivalist, it’s a good fit. Under his deft fingertips, those vintage PAF humbuckers, already hotter-than-hell, are pushed into scorching territory.
An entirely appropriate run through of Mountain’s Mississippi Queen – Jared channeling his inner Leslie West – whips the crowd into a frenzy. And, with that hurricane Jared has passed through the city of Norwich, leaving devastation and Blues Power converts in its wake.
Backstage, Jared lays a guitar case on the table before easing into his chair. He cracks it open to reveal the aforementioned 1960, looking every bit as pretty as you’d expect for a guitar of its caliber.
On loan from Remedy Guitars in Norwich, it had, at one time, been refinished to resemble a Custom (the only clue is the telltale binding marks faintly visible along the contours of the body). Now, the instrument has been restored to former glory. And, as the flame of the top sparkles in the glow of the dressing room strip light, glory really is the apt term.
“Try it on for size, man,” Jared smiles, casually handing me an instrument that could buy me a house. I’m initially hesitant. There’s the cost - $100,000 according to the man who took it for a spin on stage this evening - not to mention the pressure of demonstrating my merely competent chops in front of the blues-rock wunderkind. But, with typical joire-de-vivre, Jared is insistent that I play it.
How did it play? Every bit as well as you’d expect a $100k axe to. When I go back to using my faithful Les Paul Studio the next day, it feels like driving a Toyota MR2 after taking a spin in a Ferrari 488. It sounds mighty fine, too, even with my minor pentatonic noodling.
With the 1960 back in Jared’s hands (a relief given the insaneprice tag attached to the instrument), we kick off the interview. I’ve spoken to Jared a couple of times, and he’s always a good conversationalist. But, as my audio recorder rolls tonight, it’s clear that he’s in an especially lucid mood. Appropriately enough, we start things off at the beginning…
Do you remember the first moment you picked up a guitar?
I do. It was at my parents’ house. My brother had an acoustic guitar. I remember he’d been trying to play guitar for about two weeks and he broke the high E string… this was before the easy tuners and stuff… he never got around to getting a new string so it sat in the corner. So I looked at it, and picked it up… A lot of my friends had started playing guitar at the time – I was around 14 or 15 – but I wanted to be a drummer. But I looked at it, picked it up and I was trying to figure out how to play something.
I remember my dad walked in and said “oh, are you gonna try and play guitar? That’s cool.” And I said “yeah, but I wish it was an electric guitar, that’d be really cool,” because I was already into all the classic music. He said, “well, I tell you what. If you learn to play a riff on that guitar, we’ll go to the store, we’ll get rid of that old acoustic and we’ll get you an electric guitar.” So, within an hour, I came out and I was playing “Electric Funeral” by Black Sabbath.
Oh nice! So that was the first riff?
That was the first riff! But I was playing it on acoustic and I went “that doesn’t sound right.” I had no idea about anything. So, we go to the guitar shop, we trade in that acoustic and we get one of those starter packs. It was a cheap Washburn les Paul copy. It was $99. We got it, and I was so pumped, but driving home we got a flat tire. And I remember my dad saying, “well, looks like your guitar career isn’t off to a good start!”
So I get the guitar home, and I plug it in, and it’s on the clean channel. I remember strumming the strings and thinking, “that doesn’t sound right either.” So I’m looking on the amplifier and I see a little button that says “distortion.” All of a sudden, I click it and it goes “kzzzzzzkkzzz” and I was like “Whoah! That’s the sound!”… and I play this riff and I realize that’s the sound I was looking for.
So that was my introduction to guitar. After about two weeks, I was taking every riff from Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and trying to play them. Nine times out of ten, it was too hard and I’d move onto the next one… that was my introduction to guitar. For me, once I heard the sound of distorted guitar in my hands, that was it man.
What came before for you? Did you come from a musical family?
Not at all man. I never knew my grandpa, but he was a drummer, and he played polka. Supposedly he knew Les Paul…
So I grew up in the same town as Les Paul. Supposedly my grandpa was playing around the same time as Les Paul when they were kids, which is crazy. But no, apart from that, my family was pretty straight, man. My dad is a construction worker, my mom is a real estate agent. My brother turned into a cop, my sister was doing hair. No one was doing anything musical at all. And when I showed interest, too, I remember them thinking it was just a phase for me, saying, “oh, that’s cool. He’ll grow out of it” or something like that. It was one of those things where, when I found music; it kind of found me.
So you learn the riffs. How long is it before you’re on stage?
So check this out. Two weeks after I got the guitar.
I remember my mom walking into my room, and I was trying to learn riffs. She said, “hey look, this is really cool, but we should think about getting you on stage with some real musicians.” I remember I looked at her, like “yeah, that’d be cool. How the hell am I gonna do that?” She said, “there’s this thing called an open blues jam at this place every Sunday afternoon. If you want, we can go down there and check it out.” I said “totally, but I’m not gonna get on stage. I don’t even know what I’m doing yet, I’m just learning the fundamentals.” She says, “yeah, no problem,” and I say “I’m not bringing my guitar.”
So we show up and I remember we were getting out of the car in the parking lot, and I heard this blues guitar, and I was like “what the hell is that?” Then I heard the harmonica, like [imitates harmonica] “waaaaaaaahhh” and we walk into this club… mind you, I’m 15 years old, I’ve never heard blues – the closest thing I’ve heard to blues is “Bring it on Home” by Zeppelin – I had no idea what was going on.
Where I grew up is about an hour-and-a-half from Chicago, and the venue is at about the halfway point. So I walk in and there’s all these old school blues dudes, all from Chicago, drinkin’ and eating barbecue. So we walk up to the bar and my mom says to the guy, “hey, my son plays guitar and he’d love to get on stage and play.” And I was like “what?”
“What! You’ve gotta be kidding me.” The guy goes, “we can get him up after the set break.” And she says, “he didn’t bring his guitar, do you have one?” And he says, “yeah, for sure.” So he brings out the guitar, and I swear, the strings were like piano wires, the action was so high.
I remember right before the set, I go into the bathroom to wash my hands – I’m trying to stall – and this big old black blues guy, he’s called Big Jim, walks in and he says “hey man. You look nervous. You gonna come jam with us?” I said “yeah” and he says, “well listen, playin’ blues… it’s like jumpin’ in the water. Either you swim, or you sink and you’re gonna drown.”
[Alec bursts into laughter]
And I was like, “holy shit, what am I walking into?”
So we go on stage, and I was so nervous. I had the input jack – and I was plugged into an old Fender Twin reverb or whatever – I was so nervous that I couldn’t plug it into the guitar. I kept missing it and it was like [imitates electric crackle] “dddzzztttt, dddddzzzttt.” So he turns to me and goes “blues in E.” Now, the only thing I know about E is this [points to top string of guitar] and this [points to bottom string].
So he starts playing [imitates 12 bar blues] “bum-bah-bum-bah-bum” and I follow him, trying to play power chords, and he goes “A,” and it took me a second but I got to the “A,” then he says “B” and I’m like “I don’t know fuckin’ B, I’m not…”
And then I started playing along to the band. Then he looks at me and goes “take a solo” and I’m like, “are you kidding?” So I knew that the fretboard started again at 12, so I just went up there and started hitting the E. After I did a round of that or whatever, everyone started clapping and I was like “woah, they liked it.”
That was it man, after that I was hooked. And that was my first introduction to the blues. For me as a 15-year-old kid in the middle of nowhere that wanted to learn to play guitar, once I got hit with that bug it was like “holy shit.”
I was just on stage with real musicians, I was playing music that felt awesome to play. That’s when I said “I want to learn how to do this.” So I hung around afterwards and said to the guys, “what do I need to listen to?” and they said “B.B. King, Muddy Waters” and I was like “OK, I need to listen to blues music.”
So I went to Walmart, and I had five bucks, and I bought a three CD set called “the Best of Blues volumes One, Two and Three.” And the first riff that came on was “Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters. I heard that and I was like “this is awesome”, so I started learning how to do that stuff and I went to that jam every week. I fell in love with the blues. Then I found Stevie Ray Vaughan… I saw a video of him playing.
The town I grew up in is the town Stevie died, so I’d heard his name before. But when I saw that video of him playing blues… it was “Live at the El Mocambo” in ’83… that was all it took, man. I said, “I wanna do that. I wanna do that in my own way.” And that was it. And so it began.
You did a lot of gigging fairly early on. So you get the bug at age 15, two weeks into your guitar playing career, hitting the top E and hoping and praying. After that, you rack up hundreds of gigs by the age of 21…
Once they knew I was into it, the guys would let me play in the house band. I wasn’t getting paid or anything – I was just a kid – but I was doing these jams three a week. Then I started my own little blues band and we would play everywhere we could.
There was a Mexican restaurant, and we would play at the door when people were walking. We’d play there from 6-11.30pm on Friday and Saturday. We’d just play blues and blues-jazz as people were walking in. When I think about it now, it was so weird, but we’d play 6 hours and they would feed us at the end. We’d play at fairs or friends’ parties… wherever we would get booked. It was just so funny because I said to myself “I just wanna be on stage, that’s it.”
So by the time I moved to LA and said, “you know what, I really wanna make a move here,” I already felt like I was totally at home on stage.
So 21 is when you move to LA and that’s the point where you go “this is what I wanna do with my life…”
Truthfully, it happened a bit before then. When I was 17, I went to a four-day music program at Berklee in Boston. My mom was really the catalyst. She was like, “you should go to this school and check it out.” I remember while I was there I was like, “this is amazing.”
I remember at the end of the four days, they were like “you’re showing a lot of potential. Maybe you should apply for a scholarship.” The only way to apply was to play for them. So I went into this room and played for, like, six dudes, and they were like “do you know this chord, do you know this chord blah blah blah” and I was showing them what I knew and then three weeks later I had a scholarship to Berklee College of Music.
So I went, “I guess I know what I’m doing.”
And then, when I was 18, I moved to Boston, and I’m at Berklee for like six months. Now, nothing against the school, but where my head was at and what they wanted to do… polar opposites, y’know? I wanted to be a blues/rock/funk player and they said, we want to teach you how to play piano and read music. And I was like, “urrrgh.”
So I was there for six months and I dropped out. I was staying true to my vision. I was like, “I know what I wanna do and that’s not it.” At that point, I was back home and I went back to playing. That’s when I dropped the pick and started doing all this weird stuff.
But anyways, when I was 21, that was the point when I said, “I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make this happen.” If I’ve gotta sell everything I’ve got and work for a year and save up money to move to Los Angeles, I’m gonna do it. I thought to myself, “What other place to go than L.A.? Let’s go to the lion’s den and see what happens…”
That’s it for this week’s post. Look out for the next part of this interview soon…
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.
This week, to satisfy my yearning for live music, I’ve taken a deep dive into my record collection and rediscovered some live favourites. Given how much joy I’ve got out of these records, I thought I’d share them with you today. Putting together this list, I’ve tried to take the road less travelled. I didn’t want to put together a list of classic live albums that everyone already knows like the back of their hand. Instead, my three picks serve as alternatives to some of those classic albums, offering a new look at some legendary bands.