In 2004, when blue-eyed bluesman John Németh followed his then girlfriend to San Francisco (the couple has since married and their daughter is a year old), one of the first places he played was another newcomer to the local blues scene, Poor House Bistro, which opened in San Jose in 2005.
Németh may have been new to the Bay Area, but he was no novice to performing. From his home base in Boise, Idaho, where he grew up, he and his band were doing 250 gigs a year. Sometimes he went the traditional route, singing like Jackie Wilson or conjuring the ghost of Little Walter from the venue-du-jour's stage, but other times he took to the top of the bar, navigating beer bottles, shot glasses and baskets of pretzels to belt out ballads of woe and pain. In his felt fedora and skinny tie, he must have been quite a sight.
"John was one of the first people to play the Poor House," recalls Jay Meduri, who is a guitarist and vocalist with Jay and the Po Boys when he isn't booking acts and adding New Orleans recipes to the menu of his San Jose restaurant/clubhouse/bar. "Almost as soon as he got here, he just kind of took off." In fact, a contract with San Francisco's Blind Pig Records followed in 2006. To date, Németh has released three CDs plus a vinyl 45 for the boutique blues-roots label.
What draws music fans to Németh, and the reason why his shows at San Francisco's Biscuits and Blues on December 29, 2011, ($20) and Poor House Bistro on December 30 (free) are bound to be packed, is that this guy's the real deal. His vocal chords can summon low growls and snarls, beg for mercy in the mid-ranges and climb unexpectedly to reach the high notes, too. Meanwhile, his harmonica is precise and crisp, squealing and squawking when it needs to, conjuring the far off whistle of a freight train when that's the ticket.
With fours hours to fool around with, including a break, Németh and his band will probably play just about everything off their last three CDs, including original tunes like the Fats Domino-esque "You're An Angel" from 2007's Magic Touch, as well as classic covers like Junior Wells's "Come On In This House." That arc exemplifies a John Németh show, which freely mixes upbeat doo-wop and Chicago-style rhythm and blues with a healthy dose of the hard stuff. His wardrobe augmented these days by slip-on Van's tennis shoes hanging ten off the edge of the stage ("I got the feet of an old rocker," he drawls, "I've jumped off too many bars"), Németh appears to chafe at the distance between himself and his audience, as if he's trying to get just that much closer.
Backing Németh for this pair of late-December dates are longtime drummer Nick Fishman, old friend but new bandmate Tommy Folen on bass and the incomparable A.C. Myles on guitar. Myles is a headliner in his own right -- he'll be fronting his own band at the Poor House on January 27, 2012. He has little in common with the one-note-at-a-time style of B.B. and other kings of the genre. His chops are more like Jimi Hendrix facing off with Les Paul in a blind alley. Each goes in carrying an axe, both come out alive. Indeed, there's a friendly level of competition between Myles and Németh, who trade guitar and harmonica solos between Németh's vocals. The pairing ups the game of both, and the audience is the winner. So do whatever you like on New Year's Eve, but don't miss this band on either of the nights before.