By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Bombs & a Hustle
Let's not be too hard on Buddy Guy. The man had to take a piss. And when nature calls, it's not the most convenient time to exchange pleasantries—or receive heartfelt testimonials from those you've inspired.
That was the situation last October, when the Chicago blues guitar legend was in town to play a gig at the Fine Line. He had dashed downstairs to relieve himself, and was walking through the dressing room of the opening band—led by local blues/folk/hip-hop guitarist Nathan Miller—toward the bathroom. Miller looked up in awe. This would be his chance to meet the guitar virtuoso he had worshipped since he was 12 years old.
"I had been prepping the whole of what I was going to say, so I didn't come off as a blithering idiot. He came walking on by, and I remember him staring at me, and it was kind of like this 'Who the fuck are you?' kind of look. Like, 'Who are you and why am I looking at you?'" Miller recalls with a blissful smile.
Rocking back in his chair at Muddy Waters coffee shop, the 27-year-old Miller is visibly savoring the memory. A large metal fan drones noisily a few feet away, but his slicked-back, wavy brown hair doesn't budge. It seems nothing can disturb Miller in this moment. A lesser man may have felt slighted by the brush-off with greatness, but Miller can't stop smiling. He shared a stage that night with the artist who turned him on to his life's passion, and his gratitude is almost tangible. Guy could have kneed him in the groin, and Miller would no doubt have thanked him for the pleasure.
As if to prove that no harm was meant, Buddy Guy has invited Miller to open for him again, at a concert at the Minnesota Zoo.
"Maybe this time, I'll actually be able to talk to him," Miller says with a laugh. "It's so surreal. It takes me back to when I was like 13 or 14 years old, sitting in my bedroom, trying to copy Buddy Guy licks. It's just unreal."
But before he stumbled upon Buddy Guy, Miller discovered Jimi Hendrix. Like countless other guitarists before him, Miller claims hearing Hendrix changed everything for him. But unlike so many of those other guitarists who simply mouth their allegiance to the cult of Jimi, you genuinely believe Miller when he says hearing Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner" turned his universe inside out.
"It just kind of changed my world. It was one of those situations where your eyes just get opened up," he says. "You never knew this existed before. Before that, it was like MC Hammer, and whatever was popular on the Top 40. All of a sudden, I was like, I know what I want to do. I want to do this. I want to be a musician.'"
It took nearly 15 years, but Miller, who looks like a beefy Harry Connick Jr. with a scraggly goatee, finally released an album of his own, 2006's Bombs & a Hustle. Although Miller claims he hears plenty of Ben Harper and Jack Johnson comparisons, the album is much more meaty and leaden than those comparisons suggest.
Much of that weight can be attributed to the Weissenborn lap slide guitars Miller plays. He says he became fascinated with lap slide guitars (picture a chunky guitar you play with a slide, laying flat on your lap) while taking a metal sculpture class in college.
"One of the assignments was to make an instrument out of 'found' objects, and I ended up making a three-string lap slide guitar out of steel parts I got out of a scrap yard," he recalls. "The class just went wild for it. The reaction I got from it kind of set something off in my head and made me go, 'Wow—I finally found something that is going to set me apart from the herd.'"
The distinctive sound permeates the album. It's a lusty, bawdy, ballsy blues recording with well-placed moments of delicate folksiness and subtle hip-hop inflection. There are no jangly, tinny guitars to be found—this music is raw and earthy. You can almost feel the tension of steel and the vibration of the strings in the way Miller attacks the guitar on "Desda" (named in honor of local hip-hop/spoken word artist—and friend—Desdamona).
The Ben Harper/Jack Johnson comparisons seem justified on the playful, reggae-inflected "3 Chords." The cynics among us could (and probably should) roll their eyes when Miller sings in his scratchy voice, "Can I tell you I love you in three chords?/I'm sorry but it might take more than three chords," but you sense Miller means every syllable—cynics be damned.
Miller reels in his naturally aggressive guitar playing, as well as the heavy-handed approach of drummer Peter Day and bassist Dan Ristrom, on the stunningly gorgeous and reflective "Away." His mid-range, earthy vocals become unexpectedly transcendent when guest vocalist Debra Grahn joins him on the choruses with her ghostly, absurdly delicate vibrato. Miller insists he will never perform this song live unless Grahn is singing with him, and you can't blame him a bit.
On songs such as "Helen Keller" and "Music's My Religion," you can almost see the smirk on Miller's face as he lets his groove devolve into wonderfully unpolished, funky grit. When you listen to this twentysomething white kid from Rochester lay down the hammer with confidence and sing, "Jesus, please believe us/The music leads us in a new direction/Christ, I just might just shine a light on the dark of the question," you can't help but say to yourself, "Goddamn right on."
"The next lesson I have to learn is to do what those old blues guys did—cut half my notes, slash 'em, to get to the real heart of what I need to play," Miller says with a chuckle. "What Buddy Guy can say with one note takes me about 35."