Growing up, it was no surprise that Grant Nielsen was destined for a career in music. The tow-headed toddler would slip on his shades and into character as Ray Charles, playing along at the piano to the soundtrack of The Big Chill.
“I would wear my sunglasses, and no one knew why I was Ray Charles singing along to the Big Chill soundtrack, but I was. I think I always just loved music. I asked my parents when I was in my 20s and had been playing professionally for a number of years, you know, ‘Did you guys know I was going to be a musician?’ And they just laughed. They were like, ‘Yeah, that was fairly evident’,” says Nielsen. “So, it just was always something I was interested in until I was doing it. I don’t think there was a central thing. I always just liked it. The videotapes of me playing along with the Big Chill soundtrack predate my memory. Most of my first experiences I don’t remember at all. I’ve watched them on video, and they’re all really funny. It’s been clear to me since I was a year old.”
Nielsen is a songwriter, a performer, a producer, and graphic artist responsible for branding many of the images that have become synonymous with the city’s entertainment scene. He is somewhat of a shapeshifter, tumbling into different forms like a brightly colored shard of glass in the city’s kaleidoscopic counter culture.
He went to college on a jazz scholarship, and then came up playing in bands that moved from genre to genre from rap to blues to funk and jam, even producing pop and EDM music. When people ask Nielsen what kind of music he listens to, he just answers “yes.”
Nielsen is putting the final touches on his second compilation of local music, Amplified, and nothing is off limits when it comes to representing an accurate cross section of Jacksonville’s most talented musicians. “Even before we started the Elbow, I had always dreamed of doing a local music compilation because I love all forms of music,” he says. “There is not a kind of music that you couldn’t put on. The best of any genre is the best of that genre,” he says.
The record will be unveiled next month although Nielsen is hesitant to assign an official release date. He is a perfectionist, and he is taking his time to make sure he delivers the best product he can. “I really can’t underscore enough how much more effort this record was than the last one. And even though there are a lot of very conscientious people this time around, it took us a really long time to get everyone’s stuff. And we need a lot of stuff. We need photos and bios and high-resolution audio. It’s a process, quality control. I’m just trying to do it right, and, when it’s done, it’s going to be glorious.”
Before he was a major player in the thriving Downtown entertainment scene with The Elbow, Nielsen was a driving force in Jacksonville’s live music community before he was old enough to drive. In 1999, he was the cocky, confident blond front man for a badass collective of young blues musicians in the band Thunder and Lightning, playing music that far outweighed any real life, visceral experience. Growling, howling and strutting around on stage, Nielsen walked tall and carried a big stick, a wooden walking stick he carried to embellish his stage persona a la James Brown. Even better, he had the talent to pull it off.
Thunder and Lightning was a regular fixture of the Beaches music scene at places like Freebird Live and various festivals, holding their own alongside seasoned musicians at the Springing the Blues festival. Nielsen was just a teenager but carried himself with the swagger of ten men on vocals and blues harp.
“The beach blues rock scene of the 90s was still the coolest scene I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the most artistically advanced thing, but the thing [was] that you could go out to the Crab Pot on Saturday and almost not hear Big Engine for all the bands that were playing in a 500-meter radius. There was just so much music,” he says.
“The 90s in general were just great for music in Jacksonville. We had just epic clubs, huge names coming through and maybe names that would become huge. I don’t know. I loved the music scene of the 90s, and then it all died. Like, all of it but there was a moment there where you almost couldn’t go see an original band in Jacksonville for a few months if it hadn’t been for Jack Rabbits.”
Nielsen, with Thunder and Lightning founder and guitarist Ryan Slate and bandmates Seth Kottler and Tommy Starnes, recorded the CD “Twenty Miles Over” under the watchful eye of their producer, the late Dru Lombar of Dr. Hector & the Groove Injectors.
“It’s kind of hard to remember actually, but, if I’m going to give credit to one person who’s still around to appreciate it, it would be Sam Veal and also Judy Van Zant. And I would have to say Dr. Hector,” Nielsen says. “Dru would be actually number one, but it’s one of those things that, to be honest, we all still miss Dru a lot, and it’s still hard to talk about.”
Lombar was the driving force behind Dr. Hector and a member of the former southern rock outfit Grinderswitch. He championed the boys in the Thunder & Lightning like a proud father, giving them encouragement and the benefit of his experience as a world-traveled musician who opened for the Allman Brothers and was a member of The Gritz Southern Music Hall of Fame.
“If I’m going to give credit to one person who’s still around to appreciate it, it would be Sam Veal and also Judy Van Zant. And I would have to say Dr. Hector,” Nielsen says. “Dru would be actually number one, but it’s one of those things that, to be honest, we all still miss Dru a lot, and it’s still hard to talk about.”
Nielsen went on to create a hybrid of funk, jazz, soul and hip hop with the band Fusebox Funk with his T&L bandmates Kottler and Chris Poland who joined forces with Peter Booras and Jim Starr. Thunder & Lightning morphed from straight dirty blues into the more rock-inspired band Magilla. Later, a spontaneous jam session in 2001 turned into a side project that inspired Fusebox Funk, which gained a strong regional following and national radio play.
The ebb and flow of live music in any city pulls some bands out to sea and deposits new ones on the shores. Nielsen rolls with the tide and embraces new opportunities to stretch his legs and champion local artists. JacksonVegas is his love note of sorts to his city. The name is derived from the “big-town/little-city” mentality of Jacksonville and the cover artwork on the EP, Someday Is As Good As Any Day represents the four mascots of the downtown venues that gave rise to the band.
The bird is for the former Freebird Live (forever may she soar), the pig is the logo of Underbelly (R.I.P.), the burro is for Burro Bar (requiescat-in-pace) and the tortoise is for 1904 Music Hall. Each song is about Jacksonville, and the group consists some of the best musicians the city has to offer, including four core members: Nielsen, Bea Gayle on drums, Cyrus Quaranta on keys, and Ernie Douglass on bass. A larger, extended lineup adds many more players to the group, including John Parkerurban, Juanita Parkerurban, Myrna Stallworth, and Crickit Balsamo.
As a founding member of the Elbow, the goal was to help to provide a platform to give other musicians a dedicated infrastructure to call their own. “That was sort of the impetus behind staying involved in the music scene. We saw an opportunity, and we said you know what, no one else is going to step up for this thing, and it’s important, so let’s do it,” says Nielsen. “When the Elbow came around, it wasn’t called the Elbow, but when those clubs started opening, I immediately saw an opportunity. I’m like, we can create a culture around this and it couldn’t die. And that might’ve happened. I don’t know if we were 100 percent successful, but with the new clubs opening up and new businesses coming in, I have a feeling that we’re going to see a pretty successful Elbow 2.0.”
“We saw an opportunity, and we said you know what, no one else is going to step up for this thing, and it’s important, so let’s do it.”
When asked if the success of the Elbow was determined by the success of the live music, Nielsen says ‘absolutely not’. There were a lot of factors, he says. He credits One Spark as huge player in the original downtown renaissance and the new crop of businesses moving into the area are poised to keep the momentum moving ahead in a positive direction.
“I feel like it’s fair to claim that the music scene has the most to lose by not having the Elbow. The music scene did not drive the Elbow, kind of the other way around. And that’s the only reason that we could do something like that. The new group of adults were coming into the market from high school, college and beyond and they were the first really large group of interesting people I had ever met in Jacksonville who hadn’t decided to immediately move away. So that was a big deal, having young people in the commerce sector finally. It just hadn’t happened for a while,” he says.
“There is a vibrancy downtown now, and with that comes entertainment and a support mechanism for that community, that culture.”
“All of a sudden, lawyers that had been working downtown for 20 years are drinking artisanal coffee in the park while a cool millennial is playing a Kendrick Lamar song. There is a vibrancy downtown now, and with that comes entertainment and a support mechanism for that community, that culture. It’s a chicken and the egg kind of thing. Was Downtown successful because of things like Hemming and the Elbow or was Hemming and the Elbow successful because of Downtown? I don’t know that we’ll ever truly know.”