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Studio Milwaukee Session: Buffalo Nichols

A bearded man wearing sunglasses and a bucket hat looks to the right while standing in front of a brick wall with a mural that reads "88Nine."
Jen Ellis

Carl “Buffalo” Nichols’ mission is pretty simple: Bring the blues of the past into the future.

So … musical time travel. How hard could that be?

If you follow Nichols on Instagram, you have a pretty good idea of how hard it is. Over the past couple months, he’s posted a handful of behind-the-scenes videos showing him tinkering with synthesizers and drum machines as he barreled his way toward the release of new album The Fatalist.

Slowly, we began to hear the finished product. Lead single “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” — a reimagining of Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 recording — was a startling opening salvo that Nichols explained thusly:

"In a lot of ways I was improvising. Drum machines are a 50-year-old technology. If the blues hadn't been hijacked and trapped in amber, I think they naturally would've been incorporated. When you pick up a guitar, the first thing you're gonna play is the blues. And when you pick up an 808, you're gonna start doing trap beats."

The full album came next, released just a couple weeks ago, and Nichols brought the whole package to this Studio Milwaukee Session. The thing about his performance, after all the complexities and intricacies that went into writing and recording The Fatalist, is how easy he makes it look in person.

During his three-song set that went out over the 88Nine airwaves, Nichols went from banjo to acoustic to electric, hands gliding over each like they were coated in olive oil. Then, for the folks who made their way to our space for the performance, he laid down a rendition of “You’re Gonna Need Somebody …” bookended by some Cirque du Soleil-level guitar work that didn’t trouble him a bit.

Afterward, Nichols slid just as easily into an interview chair for a quick chat with HYFIN’s Element Everest-Blanks, helping us out during our Fall Membership Drive by sharing how he sees the impact of Radio Milwaukee and stations like ours every time he steps on stage:

“It’s really everything. Before I put out my first album, I was convinced that it’s all about streaming and radio doesn’t matter and blah blah blah. But then, when I go somewhere and have a fan base, I’m always asking people how they found out about me, and 80% of the time it’s radio. It’s maybe the best way to connect with people.”

Nichols proved that following his performance by hanging out to connect with the fans who headed over to his merch table — the type of moment that separates the in-person session experience from what you might hear over the air. So if you want to be there for the next one, our Fall Drive is the perfect time to become a Radio Milwaukee member and score an invitation to all the Studio Milwaukee Sessions we have coming up.

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Set list

  1. “The Long Journey Home”
  2. “The Difference”
  3. “The Fatalist Blues”
  4. “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” (non-broadcast performance)