Big Nick Picnic
Tom “Big Nick” Nickel takes his squeezebox very seriously. Before putting the final touches on this CD, he drove four days (two there and two back from Milwaukee, Wisconsin) to spend two days at the Balfa Heritage Festival in Lake Fausse Pointe State Park. It is the sign of a musician committed to a genre to make that kind of drive merely to stand in shadow of greats like Jimmy Breaux and Paul Daigle of Beausoleil, Dirk Powell of The Balfa Toujours and to listen to the Doucet brothers play. As Tom says, “It’s the equivalent of learning guitar from Jimi Hendrix.”
On this, Big Nick and the Cydeco’s third recorded effort, great strides have been made both musically and production-wise. As with its two previous CDs, the band mixes it up with Cajun, zydeco and R&B to great effect. What is different about this CD, is that it is far more confident and mature which, of course, means it sounds looser and better.
With a semi-new band consisting of old Milwaukee hands, most notably brothers John and Mike Sieger, Nickel has found playing mates that can admirably handle the diversity of his vision. John Sieger brings, in addition to some fine rockabilly guitar pickin’, pedigreed songwriting talents. His songs have been recorded by Robbie Fulks, Flaco Jimenez and Dwight Yoakum to name but a few. Mike Sieger has knocked around Milwaukee for a long time building his groove reputation on bass with the R&B Cadets and Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeans. Ms. Kelli Brown (previously Murphy) has been a mainstay and her bluesy voice continues to grow with the material. Rounding out the band is Cy Costible, the veteran drummer whose unique style serves as the ever-changing backdrop wide ranging repertoire.
The album rocks hard on the first tune, on “Fool in Love,” with Brown wailing to honking sax, courtesy of Bob Jennings (Paul Cebar), and Nickel’s swinging accordion. However, the majority of the songs reflect Nickel’s continuing education at the hands and feet of the Louisiana masters. “Cajun Two Step” features sophisticated accordion by Nickel complimented by swampy fiddle from Don Stiernberg and completed by snappy triangle playing from Brown. “Pointe Au Pic” is two-step redux with Nickel riding the accordion polka-like to Stiernberg bending notes on fiddle reaching for and getting that nice old-timey Dewey Balfa sound. The fais do do continues with “Bosco Stomp,” “Snap Beans” and “Church Point Breakdown,” originals all. “My Dog” is rockin’ zydeco and gives us a break from two-steppin’ as does the waltz “Jai Passe.” Not to leave his other muse behind, rhythm & blues, Ms. Brown sugar coats Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and gets sultry on “Summertime.” And, for something extra special, they wrap it all up with a great rendition of Millie Small’s “(My Boy) Lollipop.”
This band has earned the right to be taken as serious contenders for the “second generation” award. As is the case with other roots music, the farther you roam from geographical roots, the harder you have to work for accountability. Nickel and his cohorts would have no problem confounding Cajun music aficionados in a blindfold test.
Freelance Journalist and contributor to OffBeat Magazine, New Orleans