- PHOTO BY DAN COSTELLO
- Paul Niehaus IV
Paul Niehaus IV graduated in 2009 from Truman State University with a degree in music. That makes sense; a horn player since fourth grade, Niehaus mastered valve instruments before moving on to guitar, bass and keys and, eventually, finding work as a touring sideman. But his other field of study — he received a minor in folklore — informs his work as a musician as much as his mastery of music theory.
According to Niehaus, it was the connection to the stories and the people singing the songs that sparked his love of blues and other forms of American folk music. He grew up hearing his grandmother sing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and in college he would participate in bluegrass jams with local cattle ranchers.
"I like earnest music that is from the heart, and folk music is nothing but that," Niehaus says. He has transferred that passion out of academia and into the city's living, breathing live music community, both as performer and, increasingly, as a producer and studio owner.
For the past few years, Niehaus has taken the lead on the St. Louis Blues Society's annual compilation album, designed to bring new ears and eyes to the city's diverse and storied blues heritage. Like the past few collections, this year's comp, 17 in 17, was recorded in Niehaus' south-city basement studio, Blue Lotus.
"It's a great project for me because it's a chance to work with all of these amazing artists that I've always wanted to work with, who are so well respected," says Niehaus from Blue Lotus' cozy control room. "People like Kim Massie — the chance to help make her first original song ever come to life, I just cherish that. I am so blessed for that opportunity."
Massie, who is arguably this city's best-loved soul singer, collaborated with Niehaus on the track "Little Girl Lost" for 17 in 17. It's a personal song, based on her relationship as the primary caregiver to her great-granddaughter.
"She had some ideas and lyrics and little melodies about that, so she and I collaborated on that," says Niehaus. His regular partner in composition and performance, Kevin O'Connor, contributed drums and a stirring string arrangement. Together, the two act as Blue Lotus' house band and arrangers. "He's brilliant at scoring horns and strings to add the icing on the cake," Niehaus says of O'Connor.
Working and writing with talents like Massie has been Niehaus' m.o. the past few years; he has helped write and record original albums with Roland Johnson and Gene Jackson, giving those singers a bigger platform and heightened recognition in and out of town.
"If you want to be recognized outside of St. Louis, you have to do original music," Niehaus says. "There are so many amazing people doing the same songs every night of the week down on Broadway — and I mean no disrespect to that; I love it. But to set yourself apart and be celebrated outside of St. Louis, you have to do your own music.
"Roland Johnson could be a name like Charles Bradley, but not if he just keeps singing in the same club once a week," he continues. "You gotta step it up and bring it to a new level."
Any good compilation must act not only as a roster of established acts but also as a tip sheet for up-and-comers; by that metric, 17 in 17 provides a nice split. The album kicks off with Devil's Elbow, the new trio fronted by Mat Wilson and featuring David Jafari, his bandmate in Tortuga, on drums. The song "Got Conviction" has a little more muscle behind it than Wilson's work with the Rum Drum Ramblers, and this lead-off track introduces the public to some familiar players in a new context.
"It's definitely traditional blues," Niehaus says of the track. "I chose this one to be first because it's so raw and real. It's just so concise and nice — it sets it off in an old-school, raw, low-down way."
Later, Matt "The Rattlesnake" Lesch provides his own creation myth with "Rattlin'," a slice of electric blues and wah-wah guitar lines and perky organ. His vocal chops are tentative in places, but Lesch seems to have carved out a little piece of electric blues tradition for himself already.
Another young band uses its track to broaden the borders of the genre. Annie & the Fur Trappers, a trad-jazz combo built around ukulele, brass and makeshift percussion, sounds more like New Orleans than St. Louis, but Niehaus looks at their song "You Break It, You Buy It" as an important piece of the whole.
"I'm very glad we have bands like this," he says of the Fur Trappers. "There's a resurgence of this style of traditional jazz going on.
"Overall, with the whole album, we want it to be stylistically diverse as possible," Neihaus adds. "I really like that we try to represent everybody at the table."