The history of blues in Rhode Island is extensive. Legendary acts like Roomful of Blues have been crafting the style for decades, while every couple of years finds a new group putting their own spin on it.
To celebrate this kind of music, the Rhode Island Blues Fest will be held at Mulligan’s Island in Cranston on Aug. 10-11. The Silks, Travis Colby and Lois Greco will be among the various bands and musicians performing during the event.
Also on the bill will be Heidi Nirk, who will bring her dynamic voice to the stage along with her band.
Ahead of the festival, Heidi and I had a talk about what made her want to get involved with music, letting the adrenaline flow through her on stage and plans for the rest of 2019.
ROB DUGUAY: What do you consider to be the spark that made you want to become a musician?
HEIDI NIRK: I’ve always loved music, from a very young age, but what really made me want to become a musician was having Ken Lyon as my English teacher at Burrillville High School. It was Ken that introduced me to blues music. He used to come to class with his slide guitar and play. After the first time, I slipped him a cassette tape of my punk band and the story leads from there. He took a special interest in my talent and helped me a lot throughout the years.
In fact, the Heidi Nirk Band began under several different names but was started by Ken. Jack Matthews on drums and Richard “Lil’ Cousin” Calitri on harmonica were founding members from way back and have stuck with me for several years. We were able to find the best blend of musicians this girl could ever wish for when Mark Taber joined on piano. He was my number one choice, and when he agreed with excitement to join the band I was beyond thrilled. The day that guitarist Rob Nelson and bassist Paul Tomasello entered the rehearsal room was when it finally all came together. I recall jumping up and down saying, ‘This is the sound I’ve been looking for!’
RD: Due to being the frontwoman of a band, do you ever feel nervous while on stage or do you feel at home with a mic in your hand?
HN: The stage is my happy place! I am most myself when I am in front of a crowd with a microphone in hand. Sure, I still get nervous – who doesn’t? I like to use those nerves to build up adrenaline, which is why I often have the boys play something before I come up to sing.
One of my favorites is when Richard plays “Whammer Jammer” by The J. Geils Band. He is a powerhouse on the harmonica, probably one of the best players I’ve ever heard. I let the music take me to where I need to be mentally to get up there and give it my all. I like to give the people a show, not just background music, and I do so with a lot of energy that is often reflected in the audience. I love to see people dancing and having fun and I feed off their energy, too. The more they dance, the more I dance.
RD: The blues is a timeless musical style. What about it drew you to making that kind of music when you first started out?
HN: Ken used to get me into clubs when I was a teen so I could hear him play, and I remember just dancing all night to every song he pulled out of his hat. The experience influenced me to study great female blues artists such as Nina Simone, Etta James, Koko Taylor and Janis Joplin. We didn’t have YouTube back, then so instead I would sing in the mirror and try to emulate the feeling of the music until it was in my bones. When blues music starts to play, I can’t help but move my body to the beat. It has such swagger, joy and pain. Blues music is the most viable form of truth. The groove is undeniable.
RD: With the Rhode Island Blues Fest, do you prepare yourself any differently than you would for a regular show at a club?
HN: Not really, from a performance perspective. I give 110 percent no matter where we are playing. The one difference between performing at a local dive and a festival stage is that we only get one set, so I tend to include all the heavy hitters instead of spacing them out. With that, it is important to prepare vocally and physically. Stamina is important to me. I want the last note of the set to have just as much energy as the first. Wavering or slowing down is not an option for me.
RD: What are your plans for the rest of the year?
HN: We are going to keep on rocking at various venues in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut until mid-November. I take a six-week hiatus from the band when I perform on the Polar Express, which takes place at the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council in Woonsocket. This will be my ninth year with that group and it is so much fun to get yourself into the holiday spirit. After that stint, we will be bringing in the new year at Chan’s Eggroll and Jazz in Woonsocket on Jan. 4, and hopefully we’ll be starting to record our first album of originals.
To learn more about the Heidi Nirk Band, visit heidinirkband.com.