John Nemeth on World Travel, a New Sound and Juice Bars 

The blues singer gets a little soulful

"The best thing about playing in other countries is the juice bars. Everybody has fresh juice."

That's not the only reason blues musician John Nemeth has enjoyed his recent tours abroad, but he isn't kidding about that being one of the best things about his travels.

"I'm serious," Nemeth said. "It's not like in America where you get 10 percent juice. There are juice bars everywhere."

Juice bars and John Nemeth fans, apparently.

Nemeth, who will kick off his spring tour in Boise with a show at the Egyptian Theatre on Saturday, March 13, spent a week playing shows in Lebanon, followed by a week at home in the Bay Area and then a week in Russia.

"It was a month of planes, trains and automobiles," Nemeth said, laughing.

While touring is nothing new to Nemeth, that kind of overseas travel was a big change for the 34-year-old singer/harmonica player/producer. Growing up in Boise, Nemeth cut his musical teeth as a blues wunderkind. He was playing bars in Boise for years before he was legally old enough to order a pre-show shot of anything stronger than soda.

Sitting in a Target parking lot near his home while his wife shopped inside, Nemeth said he was first surprised that he had fans in Russia at all--he'd never been there before. Then he was shocked at what big fans they were.

"I had no idea," Nemeth said, still amazed. "I just had no idea at all that so many people knew about me. The first show was a 700-seat sold-out show in St. Petersburg of all places. It was really far out, man. It was really cool. I was out in the lobby before one of the shows and signed old CDs that people had had for a long time ... and concert posters; I don't even know where they got them. There were people there who had seen me in the U.S., too, which was cool."

Even the club owners were at his shows, not because they were keeping an eye on things but because they really like Nemeth's music. It wasn't just the numbers of fans or the participation of the club owners that took Nemeth by surprise. He was taken aback by how his own preconceptions of Russia in particular were challenged.

"Everyone there was super warm and polite, not what you'd expect with all the propaganda about Russia," Nemeth said. "And I think English [with a Russian accent] sounds so cool. It sounds just like in the movies."

Another great part of playing outside of the United States was getting away from the restrictions Nemeth often has to deal with in larger U.S. cities. When he plays in New York, for example, he often has to contend with a 60-day exclusive for a 100-mile radius, meaning that in a two-month period, he can't play two clubs within 100-miles of each other. In Russia, he played three shows in three different clubs and loved it, mostly because it reminded him of the days when he lived and played in Boise.

"I would play The Bouquet and Tom Grainey's and Pengilly's and the Dutch Goose, all in one week," Nemeth said, a hint of nostalgia sneaking into his laid-back tone.

Along with branching out into areas he hasn't played previously, Nemeth continues to take creative strides. When BW talked to him last year, he had just finished his second release, Love Me Tonight, on Blind Pig Records. It was a musical shift for him, one in which he was veering off from pure blues and easing in a little more soul. In May Nemeth will release Name The Day, his most soulful album to date, which contains 10 original tracks and one cover song. He's not giving blues the short shrift; it's just that Nemeth's influences are a huge part of his music and with straight blues, he hasn't been able to pull from the likes of his soul and R&B icons Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Howard Tate or Hank Ballard.

"Blues has to be scaled down," Nemeth said. "But soul draws from everything ... chord progressions didn't have to be standard. I could just take the songs wherever I wanted to." Which he did.

Independence and control of his craft have always been a big part of Nemeth's process, but he feels like now, more than ever, he's in a place where he can do what he wants. He produced both Love Me Tonight and Name The Day despite how risky--writing, performing and producing music doesn't give an artist much objectivity--that can be for a musician. It has worked for Nemeth. In early 2009, Love Me Tonight debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard Blues chart. In November, it zoomed back up the chart to outrank records by such luminaries as Robert Cray and Derek Trucks. And also at the tail end of 2009, Nemeth learned he had been nominated for Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year by the Blues Foundation.

But no matter how far he travels or how many accolades are heaped on him, Nemeth is one of the most grounded, cool cats around. He made sure while touring to take in the local culture--especially the food (and, of course, juice).

"[In Russia] I ate what the locals eat," Nemeth said. "Get this: They take lard and chill it and then slice it and wrap it with pickles. And they take vodka, and put fresh honey and horseradish in it. So you take this hot-and-sweet vodka and chase it with the lard and pickle. I did a lot of each."

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