Steve Morse was the senior rock music critic at the Boston Globe for nearly 30 years and currently teaches a course in Rock History at Berklee College of Music. He also served a 7-year term on the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following is what Steve had to say about Dwight & Nicole, both as individual music makers, and collectively...
Music pours out of Dwight & Nicole. They have just arrived in Boston after a taxing four-hour drive from their home in Burlington, Vermont, yet there is Dwight, sitting on a couch, holding a guitar and joining Nicole for a surprise version of Roy Orbison's sweetly enchanting “Blue Bayou.” The sound fills the room, enhanced by added guitar from their producer, Milt Reder, whose gorgeous home studio, Rear Window, is where Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson have recorded their last two albums.
“I LOVE Roy Orbison!” Nicole says when she completes the song. Frankly, Dwight & Nicole love all kinds of music, which is evident on their new, aptly titled CD, Shine On, an inspiring mashup of folk, blues, pop, jazz, gospel and reggae styles. The album can't be categorized easily, but that's fine. “I don't want to do just one thing,” says Nicole, who won the latest Boston Music Awards nod for best female vocalist.
The new album is the culmination of an exciting year in which Dwight & Nicole not only bonded more than ever personally and professionally, but which saw Nicole make a national splash on the popular NBC-TV show “The Voice.” She startled the judges by singing Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah,” which was then released as a single and became a hit on iTunes. One judge, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, said Nicole has “one of the most powerful voices I've ever heard.” Another supporter, poet Maya Angelou, simply calls her “magnificent!”
Nicole sang on “The Voice” alone, but that ability to stun and elevate people is what both Dwight & Nicole do. A re-recorded version of the prayerful “Hallelujah” is on their new Shine On album, which is filled with positive lyrics and a healing spirit — witness such tracks as the new single “On Top of the World” (with Nicole belting “I want to be on top of the world ... I want to fly!“), the reggae-flavored “Smile” (penned by Dwight), the horn-drenched “I Need Love” and the soaring “Saturday.”
“The songs are inspired by our love together and trying to look at the world's bright side,” says Dwight. Adds Nicole: “It's not about the bright lights/big-city lights. It about the inner light.” Or as producer Milt Reder says, “There's a spirituality to it without it being heavy-handed. It has a lot to do with the way their relationship is.”
But first, let's step back and look at how these two got together. Dwight is from Long Branch, New Jersey (“one town over from Asbury Park,” he beams) and he grew up surrounded by music. His grandfather, Al Reinhardt, had a big band in the '40s and played stride-style piano. Dwight started as a drummer but also picked up the guitar when he fell in love with Buddy Guy. He also dug funk and rock (his next door neighbor was Tico Torres, the eventual drummer in Bon Jovi's band). Dwight's early group was called Red Beans, which put out a prophetic album called “On the Way Up” in 1999. He then released two albums with his own Dwight Ritcher Band, named “Drive Around Town” (2002) and “Radioman” (2004).
Nicole grew up in Brooklyn and was likewise exposed to diverse influences. She was the first professional musician in her family but she was steered toward jazz by her dad and R&B by her mom, who loved Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. But a tragedy occurred when her brother died of asthmatic complications when he was just 15. That sent Nicole into a shell of shyness — and music was her lifeline back. “I dove into music as a healing tool. The energy of the songs pulled me up,” she says.
The two singers met at the Yard Rock Cafe, a club just outside of Boston, in 2001. “I wanted to be a songwriter and when I met Dwight, I was floored by his songwriting skills. And we had a tremendous amount of chemistry,” Nicole says. Dwight felt the same way and recalls, “Our voices really sat well together. We both sit a little behind the beat and it works well.” They released an EP entitled “Dwight & Nicole” in 2006, then came their albums !Signs (2010) and the new Shine On.
Along the way they met producer Milt Reder and “that was the train that changed our lives,” says Dwight. Milt is not only a great guitarist — he played with Barrence Whitfield & the Savages for a long while — but his Rear Window studio is a magnet for creative artists. Susan Tedeschi made a Grammy-winning album there and Terry Adams of NRBQ has been another client. But Milt has paid extra attention to Dwight & Nicole and has had them stay often at his sprawling, 100-year-old Victorian home.
“Dwight has a huge musical head,” says Milt. “He was originally a drummer but he can also sit down and play boogie-woogie at the piano in addition to his guitar playing.” As for Nicole, he says, “She has a once-in-a-lifetime voice, but it took a while for her to find her way. When you can sing like everybody from Aretha Franklin to Dinah Washington, it's hard sometimes to find your own style.”
They have both found their collective way now. “They're stretching on the new album,” says Milt. “It's a nice combination of old and new. They're progressing, but if you liked their first album, you'll like this one too.” They have also become in demand on the tour circuit, playing everywhere from Tanglewood to the Blue Note in Manhattan, while sharing stages with the likes of Natalie Cole, Dr. John, and Carly Simon. A special irony is that the duo received a monumental boost from Nicole being watched by millions of people on “The Voice,” yet she does not own a television set herself. “I'd rather have a good conversation and a stiff drink,” she says. Now that's old school. But as long as she continues to electrify audiences and write exquisite songs with Dwight, that's what counts.
Dwight Ritcher is a jack of all trades — and a master of most of them. He can comfortably sing and play guitar, drums and keyboards while fusing various styles from blues and funk, to R&B, jazz and alternative rock.
“I'm self-taught. I never went to music school,” Dwight says. “And I like to work in a lot of formats ... I just keep all irons in the fire.”
That's an understatement.
Dwight, a New Jersey native who has also lived in Boston, Brooklyn and now Burlington, VT, is perhaps best known for his work in the duo Dwight & Nicole (full name Nicole Nelson). They tour regularly but also do their own things separately. Nicole was the stunning surprise of the NBC show “The Voice” in 2012 when she did a solo version of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah,” viewed by millions.
Dwight & Nicole have made two albums and an EP together. She is his life partner as well as musical soul mate. But while Dwight views their duo as the “umbrella” for all their other activities, he has still fashioned a high-quality solo career himself.
He runs the Dwight Ritcher Organ Trio, but his most prominent solo project is the Dwight Ritcher Band, which has made two albums in “Drive Around Town” (2002) and “Radioman” (2004) while spinning off several songs that aired on cable shows on Fox, Lifetime and A&E. The group continues to perform today, featuring Dwight with longtime friend Greg Parasko on guitar, Dean Johnston on drums, and the world-class Aruda Brothers (Scott and John) on horns.
Both of their albums were made at Ft. Apache Studios in Cambridge and were produced by Dwight and engineered by Brian Brown. They were done on an old Studer reel-to-reel machine, typical of Dwight's love of vintage equipment. All of the songs were Dwight originals and the band has backed them with residencies at such places as the Green Street Grill in Cambridge and Nectar's (where Phish honed its chops) in Burlington.
“We have our own sound at this point,” he says of the Dwight Ritcher Band. “There's no two chordal instruments. I have to sing and play guitar at the same time. It's not clean and polished like a show R&B band. It has more of an edge to it as we do songs that are filtered through funk, jazz and R&B.”
The world “edge” comes up often in talking to Dwight. “I like all kinds of music as long as it has some edge to it,” he notes. “I just don't want it to be safe ... The blues is still at the center for me, but there's a whole other world out there. I can't just do one thing.”
Dwight grew up in Long Branch, NJ -- right next to Asbury Park. His grandfather, Al Reinhardt, was in a big band in the '40s and he set the tone for his family's musical genes. Dwight started out playing drums at age 16 and would slip into a club called the Bar Bombay to pound the skins with older blues cats. “I'd barely be able to get to sleep later because I'd be so excited,” he recalls. He also drummed in a community orchestra doing the musicals “Pirates of Penzance” and “My Fair Lady.” He additionally played blues piano in coffeehouses before going to the University of Vermont to study English.
“I grew up next to the highway in Jersey and I'd never seen a cow until I was 18, so it was neat to get out to the (Vermont) mountains,” he adds.
In Vermont he formed the duo Red Beans, in which he played Fender Rhodes while Greg Paraskos held down guitar. There was no drummer or bassist but instead Dwight played a hi-hat with his left foot. Talk about a jack of all trades. Red Beans released an album, “On Top of the World” (1999) and played in blues and jazz festivals around New England. “We did some originals and also B.B. King and Buddy Guy songs,” he says. “The premise was that we were a groove band. We'd make things up on the spot.”
Dwight then moved to Boston where he launched Dwight Ritcher Band, which became a staple in the clubs. He then made a big move to New York and appeared in the documentary “Where's the Music At?,” which followed ten unsigned artists and was shown in independent theaters. It turned out that Nicole Nelson, whom Dwight had first met in Boston, was also in the documentary after moving to New York around the same time. (She's a Brooklyn native.) He and Nicole started performing together and their relationship deepened romantically as well. And then they moved back to Boston.
In the mid-2000s, Dwight also played in a Boston group called Drawn Butter, which had guitarist Stu Kimball, who has been in Bob Dylan's band in recent years. Dwight had a further gig with the Elements, featuring his current producer, Milt Reder, on guitar (Milt has toured internationally with Barrence Whitfield & the Savages). Dwight also managed to spend summers on Martha's Vineyard, where he jammed with alt-rock star Evan Dando (“I really like his songwriting,” says Dwight) and more recently appeared on an album by Boston's Christian McNeill & the Sea Monsters.
“Yes, I enjoy the diversity of it all,” Dwight says. “I love Nicole and I think we've done some great things together, but I think we've also done some great things separately.”
Nicole Nelson has many dreams. One is to play Billie Holiday in a Broadway musical. “I really think it's something I'll be a part of someday,” Nicole says in her hopeful way. “I want to see her fully portrayed. She was so tough and so sensitive at the same time. And so brilliant.”
Some people have frankly said the same things about Nicole. She has what music lovers call a “gift.” Her voice is unforgettable once you hear it, as millions of people discovered when they tuned into the NBS hit show “The Voice,” where she sang Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” with such fervent soul that all four judges -- Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green -- wanted her for their teams.
Nicole kept her cool throughout the show. “I have chosen a life that is like walking on a barbed wire, so it's important to stay balanced,” she says. “You can't freak out. If I went in and thought this was a once-in-a-liftetime experience, then I might have been scared. But it's just music. It's just a show. It's a beautiful opportunity, but it's hopefully one of many that will come my way if I stay open ... The most important thing is that I still be myself.”
A Brooklyn native, Nicole knows she has chosen a non-traditional life. Her dad, Roy, was a Kodak engineer who wanted her to be a scientist. But Nicole says that all she did as a youth was sing, and that academics were not for her. She preferred to listen to her idols who range from Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, to Whitney Houston, Bonnie Raitt and the Staples Singers. She also played violin and piano growing up, being self-taught all the way after being “fired” from piano lessons after getting ahead of the class and becoming bored.
Nicole then moved to Boston with thoughts of entering Berklee College of Music, but she got waylaid by the blues. She played blues jams and sat in with the legendary Sweet Willie D. She also won the Boston Blues Society's annual “Battle of the Blues Bands.” She was on her way, gaining immediate respect.
She even scored a tryout in New York City for the soon-to-be-smash Broadway musical, “Rent.” She got five callbacks but became exhausted since she had to commute from Boston. “I was working full-time and coming home from bartending at 2 a.m., then I'd have to memorize the songs and take an early bus to be in New York by noon.” She reached the final four in the competition for the lead role, but finally revealed that she couldn't read music and that sealed her fate.
She returned to Boston but didn't slow down. She formed the Nicole Nelson Band from 2001-2004 -- backed by city veterans Brad Faucher and Bruce Bears -- but admits that “it never felt like me. I came in completely green.” The band never made an album but did make an EP they sold at shows.
She also sang in Boston with a big band called Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Orchestra, joining them for prestigious gigs at Harvard's Sanders Theater and at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. She also traveled to New York to play with J.C. Hopkins' The Biggish Band, which she describes as a “semi-big band, a cocktail-sized big band.” They once played at Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, where Levon made a lasting impression. “He was such a warm person,” she says.
In Boston she had also met Dwight Ritcher, a blues genius who was to later become her life partner and co-leader of their nationally known duo Dwight & Nicole. But first she moved back to Brooklyn and appeared in the film documentary “Where's the Music At?,” which followed the lives of 10 unsigned artists. As luck would have it, Ritcher had also moved to New York at the time and was one of the unsigned acts in the film. He and Nicole soon hooked up professionally and personally, moving back to Boston, where they have since made two duo albums, !Signs (2010) and the new Shine On, both produced by friend and colleague Milt Reder at his cozy Rear Window Studio in Brookline.
Nicole continues to do solo gigs, however, sometimes with just herself on guitar. She says humbly, “The audience doesn't seem to mind if I'm less than stellar on guitar.” She also sometimes does gospel shows and jokes, “I think I was a gospel singer in another life ... I could sing gospel all day.”
Nicole is known for her sunny disposition and positive outlook. Seeking more peace of mind, she and Dwight have moved to Burlington, Vt., where they reside in an artist compound on the shore of Lake Champlain. Nicole likes to meditate on the shore and is very much into chakra balancing, visualization, and eating a healthy diet. “I can't eat a lot of chemicals or preservatives,” she adds.
Which bring us to her baseline theory about performing. “It's important that I bring my presence,” she says. “And to do that, I have a responsibility to be healthy.”