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What do the “Blues Brothers,” legendary bluesman B.B. King and a white kid from Middle Village all have in common?
While you ponder this question, imagine a smoky club in Manhattan. A rockin’ band keeps the groove going as the soulful vibrato of an electric guitar played by a raffish musician wearing sunglasses and sporting a black fedora, fills the air with raw energy.
Blues guitarist/songwriter Arthur Neilson occasionally wears shades, but no fedora, and these days the clubs he plays aren’t smoky. But the rest of the scenario is accurate.
Dec. 4, 2011 was a memorable day for the talented musician from Middle Village. That Sunday, he was inducted into the New York City Blues Hall of Fame, and performed for a packed house at the legendary Kenny’s Castaways. The house that rock built, in the heart of Greenwich Village, is one of the last remaining authentic rock ‘n’ roll bars in the City. Bruce Springsteen’s very first New York gig took place there in ’73, and rock fans swear they can still hear faint strains from bands like Kiss, The Ramones, Aerosmith, and The New York Dolls within its walls. Kenny’s showcases the finest up-and-coming musicians and bands in the country.
His face covered in sweat from the bright lights illuminating the stage, Neilson played his modified Gibson/Epiphone Flying V guitar, named Lucy (after the late great blues guitarist Albert King’s). The crying guitar’s mournful bass riffs seemed to tell a story — it was Neilson’s moody minor key instrumental, “During the Storm.” Afterward, he segued into “Daddy Long Legs” — an uptempo instrumental with a catchy melody and “Better Deal,” a slow blues song: “I’ve got a brand new woman, and I got me a better deal.”
“There were many other New York City musicians being inducted that day, so I was in good company,” said Neilson, who was presented with a framed award by both Roxy Perry, the New York “Ambassador” for the Blues Hall of Fame, and fellow inductee, keyboardist/band leader Dave Keyes. Sultry songstress Shemekia Copeland also performed with Neilson. She has gigged with him for over 13 years and they played at Lincoln Center recently.
“Roxy Perry got in touch with me and said I was nominated. I couldn’t believe it at first — I was overwhelmed. Wow!” said Neilson, who has also played at the Lone Star Cafe, Louisiana Grill, Tramps, and Dan Lynch’s Blues Bar.
“Christmas 1967, I was 15. I wanted a guitar from the day I was born, but my parents thought it would just be a fad when they got one for me and I taught myself to play,” Neilson said.
Even though Neilson worked at the Bohack Supermarket on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, while attending Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, he still found time to play in cover bands and do church gigs when he was free.
Young Arthur had to find ways to explore his passion. A record store in Jamaica was the answer to his prayers. Albert King’s album “Blues Power” struck a chord with the teen yearning to play the guitar like his blues idols: B.B. King, Albert Collins, Michael Bloomfield, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters.
During his brief time at Queens College, Neilson said all he really wanted to do was play guitar. “I used to bring my acoustic guitar and play in the stairwells because the sound was big and echoey.” Wearing large headphones, he spent a lot of time in the music library, listening to records from a blues collection donated by someone at the college. “I was in heaven,” he said.
He also spent an enriching timeworking with Felix Cabrera, the Cuban-born bandleader/performer known for his Latin blues style and a fellow Blues Hall of Fame inductee.
“Felix was the first guy I ever played blues with. I answered an ad in the Village Voice he placed, seeking a blues guitarist. I went out to his home in New Jersey and we hit it off right away.”
Neilson has performed with him, on and off, since 1973. “We did lots of shows at the old Lone Star Café, opening for such greats as Buddy Guy, Roy Buchanan and James Brown. Felix is a great harmonica player and when he performs, he gives 110 percent.”
In the ’80s and through the ’90s Neilson was a hot item, playing the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly and country at various venues.
He writes a lot of instrumental pieces: some are very ‘bluesy’ and some are soundscapes. I like to write moody, romantic things and I love melody and emotion. I call it Melodic Emotion.”
Neilson has released three albums: “A Piece of Wood, Some Strings and a Pic,” “Moan and Cry” and “Hell of a Nerve.” “Moan & Cry” defines his raw, emotional guitar playing.
So, why does a boy from Queens choose to play the blues?
“It’s what I love. I listen to and play different types of music, but I always come back to the blues. It’s about feelings and emotions, and that’s what moves me.”
Neilson’s CDs are available on arthurneilson.com.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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