Singer-guitarist Nick Curran, the Texas-based guitarist who died Saturday, Oct. 6 at age 35 of oral cancer, blurred musical boundaries and defied audience expectations. At times, it felt like his music — filled with shrieking sax solos, boogie-woogie piano and his piercing, retro-styled guitar — could have passed through a time-warp from some Southern roadhouse or juke joint in 1960. Yet Curran often cultivated a punky image — tattoed-filled arms, cut-off shirts and leather motorcyle cap — that conveyed an edgier attitude.
Curran, who won a Blues Foundation Award (the national awards for blues music formerly known as the W.C. Handy Awards) in 2004 as Best New Artist, loved to mix Iggy Pop and AC/DC tunes into his repertoire of jump blues or sneak a heavy metal lick into a Magic Sam boogie. He could scream his way through a Little Richard-style romp but was just as comfortable laying down a blues shuffle.
“I like Little Richard and Gene Vincent and the (Rolling) Stones and the Who, and the Ramones and the Misfits and Sam Cooke,” he once told the Newark Star-Ledger. “It all has raw attitude and it wasn’t all polished. It’s saying the same thing. I like to take all of those in as my influences, and spit ’em out, however they come out.”
Curran began his career as a teen prodigy playing guitar in a band with his father, a Sanford, Maine blues harmonica player, Mike Curran. Musicians from Maine recall the teenager as having a sponge-like ability to soak up other player’s licks on the bandstand and play them right back.
At age 19, Curran toured with Texas rockabilly singer Ronnie Dawson, himself a former teen prodigy who had backed-up Gene Vincent in the late 1950s, and later hit the road with rockabilly revivalist Kim Lenz.
After relocating to Austin, Curran put together a jump band, Nick Curran and The Nitelifes. The band drew on the guitar-and-horns style Texas blues of T-Bone Walker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown but added the mix the screaming rock-and-roll of Little Richard into the mix.
Washington Post critic Geoffrey Himes wrote that Curran’s 2004 album, “Player,” “recaptures that transitional period when jump blues were turning into the beginnings of rock-and-roll, and he fills his songs with the kind of nervous energy and pop hooks that fueled that transformation.”
Himes added that Curran’s guitar work “boasts a youthful exuberance, flinging brisk, melodic lines in every direction.”
Curran went on to tour with Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds for nearly two years and played on their 2005 album, “Painted On.” Back in Austin, he also fronted a Clash-influenced punk band, Deguello, and a garage rock band, the Hustlers. He also worked with a metal band, the Flash Boys — decisions that undoubtedly confused those who knew him for jump blues.
Curran returned to fronting a jump band after these detours, but with a change. The Nitelifes were rechristened the Lowlifes. His 2010 album, “Reform School Girl,” seemed to merge all of his influences — jump blues, rockabilly, heavy metal and even girl group pop — into the mix with much harsher and denser production.
“He wanted the record to sound like your record player blew up,’’ bassist Billy Horton told the Portland Maine Press Herald. “He loved punk, blues and rockabilly.... He was able to bring in all those influences he loved and (make) a weird Nick stew.”
The spirited, edgy, rock-and-roll received much airplay on Little Steven’s Underground Garage Sirius satellite radio channel. However, the month the record came out, Curran was diagnosed with oral cancer. He went through intensive cancer therapies including tongue surgery and eventually returned to performing. His Facebook posts from the last two years reflect his courage as he was told his cancer was in remission, and not long after, that it had returned.