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Don’t let the lone-man-with-a-guitar set-up fool you—Dan Nicholson is no navel-gazing coffee-house whiner. While many solo acoustic artists avoid it, he’s the rare performer who welcomes sharing a bill with bands. And that’s because when Dan Nicholson performs, one thing is explicitly clear—he’s not leaving anything in reserve. He therefore seems intent on not only matching but exceeding the volume and energy of three and four-piece groups. Not that he’s averse to playing with an ensemble; Nicholson’s stripped-down approach is functional and belies what he is at his core: a man totally into his music.
Totally into his music, and totally dedicated to it—possessed by a near-obsessive drive to write, craft and record his one-of-a-kind songs at an unflagging pace, Nicholson hardly leaves himself time to breathe, let alone worry about ancillary tasks like networking or self-promotion. Even still, his ever-expanding arsenal of irresistibly catchy tunes and his always-cathartic acoustic performances have led an increasing number of music fans to sit up and take notice.
And make no mistake, the 33-year-old Nicholson has had nothing handed to him since he began writing and performing at age 16. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Nicholson’s parents steered him toward classical music at an early age as a way to avoid the mean streets. After cutting his teeth in two different bands through high school, in 1999 the 19-year-old Nicholson released Realer Than Real, a 12-song LP written and performed almost completely by himself. The album was produced by Mike Ferrara and recorded at Brooklyn’s legendary Fast Lane Studios.
The following year found Nicholson garnering high acclaim from the Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame, when “Just To Get Close To You,” a song he’d penned for the acoustic duo he was part of at the time, caught the attention of Songwriters' Hall Of Fame Projects Director Bob Leone. The song would subsequently earn Nicholson a slot in a SHOF-sponsored industry showcase; a two-song gig that subsequently opened the door to a full-length showcase the next month.
In 2004 however, Nicholson abruptly switched gears and left his hometown of Brooklyn, NY, eventually settling in Minneapolis, MN. Some of his strongest songs were written during this period, collected on The Minneapolis Years, Nicholson’s 2010 release and second full-length LP. The album featured standout tracks like “Coming Home,” “Goner,” “Don’t Try” and “Last Of The Bicycle Songs” and stealthily dismissed any notion that Nicholson had been spinning his wheels in the decade between his first and second releases.
In Spring 2012, Nicholson performed Casa Alacran, a St. Paul art gallery, accompanying himself solely on piano for the first time. He treated the art-house crowd to a blistering 30-song, two-hour set. And his headlining turn at the legendary Minneapolis venue First Avenue/7th St. Entry last winter again demonstrated what makes Nicholson unique: frenzied mania and raw emotion coupled with equal helpings of soulful, subtle vocal/guitar work.
Incidentally, many of Nicholson’s finest songs have found a home on Betting On The Muse, the new 13-song set that Nicholson released on December 27th. Several longtime favorites finally find a home on the new album, such as the poignant “Promise To You” and the funereal stomp “Bring The Whip.” Alongside them, newer but no-less-classic tracks like “Demon Called Woman,” “Transmissions From A Far-Off Land,” and the frenetic title track quickly remind us that Nicholson has only begun to scratch the surface of his power as a songwriter and performer, continuing to grow and evolve
With rock-solid song craft and an attention to detail rarely seen in today’s music, as well as his super-intense live performances, it’s beginning to look like Dan Nicholson won’t be able to stay out of the public eye for much longer.