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Buffalo Nichols channels blues legends at the Turf Club

Buffalo Nichols performed at Turf Club in St. Paul on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. Luke Callen was the opening act.
Buffalo Nichols performed at Turf Club in St. Paul on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. Luke Callen was the opening act.Steve Cohen for MPR

by Joel Swenson

February 17, 2023

One night in 1930, a young aspiring blues musician named Robert Johnson tried his hand at playing the same Mississippi juke joint as Delta blues legends Willie Brown and Son House. Almost immediately, he was booed off the stage, and the owner threw him out. No one saw him again for an entire year. When he suddenly reemerged, he could play the blues better than anyone.

People were stunned. How could this lousy, no-talent kid suddenly outplay every Delta legend? There was only one explanation anyone could come up with: Robert Johnson had gone down to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil.

At last night’s Turf Club show, one thing was certain. The devil and Robert have nothing on Buffalo Nichols.

Playing a mix of his own vulnerable, melancholic numbers and those of the blues masters that came before him, Nichols captivated the crowd from the moment he strapped on his guitar. After a brief droning warm-up, he launched right into his self-titled album’s yearning sentimental opening track, “Lost & Lonesome.” There’s undeniable beauty in the album version’s more stripped-down and straightforward approach. But Nichols adds an extra layer of intensity that just keeps building when he plays it live. That intensity took center stage throughout his entire set.

Close up of a man playing a guitar
Buffalo Nichols performed at Turf Club in St. Paul on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. Luke Callen was the opening act.
Steve Cohen for MPR

Including “Lost & Lonesome,” Nichols played six of the eight songs of his 2021 debut, each one much grittier, heavier, and more raw than they are recorded. While the album tracks are noteworthy in their own right (there’s a reason Rolling Stone has written about Nichols not once, not twice, not even thrice, but four times in the past year and a half), his catalog is truly best experienced live.

Like many blues pickers, Nichols’ preferred instrument of choice is a resonator guitar. As the name implies, a resonator is an acoustic guitar designed to resonate and play much louder than a typical acoustic. Its harsh twang makes it a blues, bluegrass, and country staple. 

Resonators in blues music are nothing new or noteworthy. But what Nichols manages to do with his is nothing short of extraordinary. Plugged into different effects pedals and heavily distorted at times, Nichols uses his guitar to create his own distinct style of the blues that would surely have the devil turning his tail back towards the crossroads. It’s also safe to say that a Buffalo Nichols show is the only place you’re likely to see an “Eruption”-esque tapping solo done on a resonator.

Nichols grew up on the Northside of Milwaukee, a predominantly Black neighborhood in one of the most redlined and segregated cities in America. Picking up a guitar at an early age, he spent years playing everything from hip-hop to Baptist church music to grindcore. But it was countless trips to his mother’s CD collection that led him to the blues. He was initially drawn to the blues due to artists like B.B. King, but it was the genre’s deep roots in Black culture and history that kept him digging for more. Unfortunately, the blues, like countless other genres and art forms, has become increasingly whitewashed.

A man's hands play a guitar
Buffalo Nichols performed at Turf Club in St. Paul on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. Luke Callen was the opening act.
Steve Cohen for MPR

But at Thursday’s show, Nichols paid homage to his early blues influences. Rounding out Nichols’ set were covers of King’s “Woke Up This Morning (My Baby She Was Gone),” Blind Willie Johnson’s “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond,” and Bukka White’s “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.” All three of these deep cuts may have been written decades before Nichols picked up a guitar for the first time, but he poured himself into each one and made them entirely his own.

Nichols was joined at the Turf Club show by an old friend, Minneapolis-based folk picker Luke Callen. The pair have a history of playing shows together in Milwaukee and other parts of Wisconsin. Before Nichols’ explosive performance, Callen played his own outstanding set. With lived-in lyrics that balance humor and heartache, his natural musical storytelling ability charmed the crowd more and more with each song.

In between some songs, Callen leaned into that charm to inject some crucial doses of reality. While introducing a ballad, he set the context for the song.

“This song is a story I made up that takes place in northern Minnesota, where there's a lot of resource exploitation for things like lumber, iron ore, and taconite. Those areas have these big camps where they do all this work, and what tends to happen is that many Indigenous people end up going missing or getting murdered. I’m sure you’ve all heard that story. This song is about Clementine.”

As Callen wrapped up “Clementine,” a friend leaned over and said, “This sounds like those early Johnny Cash songs about the struggles of Indigenous people but sung like Bob Dylan if Bob Dylan could actually sing.” And honestly, there’s no better way to describe it than that. 

Callen’s entire set was poignant, self-aware, and brimming with gratitude. He took every opportunity to express his thanks to people for being there and to assure them that they were in for a real treat from Nichols. And he was certainly right about that.

For his part, Nichols was equally as charming in his own self-deprecating way (“Every day is Friday when you’ve given up!”) and more than gracious towards both the audience and Callen.

“I thank y’all for being here. This is the most people I’ve played to on my bill, so I really appreciate it. Normally, I’m just up here for 30 minutes pissing off Drive By Truckers fans, so this is really great. Now, does anyone have anything to say before I play this last song and go home?”

No one took him up on that. He went right into his final song of the evening, “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues,” played on his shiniest silver resonator with the same intensity as the rest of his set as if to keep the devil at bay.

Check out Luke Callen’s next show at Icehouse on Feb. 23, and listen to his new single when it releases on Feb. 24.


Lost & Lonesome

Sick Bed Blues (Skip James cover)

Woke Up This Morning (My Baby She Was Gone) (B.B. King cover)

These Things

Living Hell


Another Man

You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond (Blind Willie Johnson cover)

How to Love

Aberdeen Mississippi Blues (Bukka White cover)

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.