Most articles you’ll find about Carl Nichols these days wrangle with definitions of the blues. Musicians and songwriters of this genre provided a framework that gave rise to most of modern popular music, yet any time a young artist wants to bring the blues into the cultural spotlight, people want to talk about authenticity, as if the style isn’t allowed to change. In today’s independent music landscape, however, the divisions between genres are breaking down organically; nobody’s yelling about the purity of indie rock when an artist adds electronic beats to their sound, and the blurred lines between sub-genres only add to the richness of the music and expand possibilities for modern songwriters.

Fans from Nichols’ hometown of Milwaukee, however, already know him as a musical polymath. From his folk/Americana duo Nickel & Rose and going back further to his days as one of the city’s premier guitar shredders, his skills have always been versatile enough to fit any musical whim. At Saturday night’s homecoming show at the Vivarium, under his solo moniker Buffalo Nichols, he brought all of this background to bear on old and new songs that are still evolving every night, impossible to tie down.

Opening the show was local post-emo group Social Caterpillar, who recently announced their impending breakup. According to the group’s Instagram, they’ll be recording a three-song EP this spring and putting together one more show, and that will be it. While the members will surely continue on in other projects, it’s a definite blow to the local scene; Alphabet Crown was one of the most powerful albums of 2023, and Social Caterpillar played most of the songs from it on Saturday. Emotions clearly ran high for the band, particularly during show-stoppers like “Guillotine For Hope” and “Smells Like Middle-Aged Apathy” late in the set.

It was a tremendous performance, but it also raised some issues related to the spanking-new venue. For one thing, the Vivarium stage is a bit low; members Eric Ash and Eli Smith were seated for most of the performance and could barely be seen. This may or may not have been a factor contributing to the overall chattiness of the crowd, which threatened to drown out the band at times. The sound system itself was at least partially to blame; it was plenty loud, but the guitars sounded thin and sometimes crackled in and out, and the violin was often hard to discern in the mix. There’ve only been a handful of shows here, and early reports seemed more positive regarding the sound, so maybe it was just an off night.

The sound improved for Buffalo Nichols’ set, but it wasn’t by any means pristine. Opening the show solo with “Lost & Lonesome” off his 2021 self-titled debut, Nichols’ deep, weathered vocals and acoustic slide guitar cut through the chatter, which barely let up at all throughout his performance. He then welcomed Tori Yocum on bass and Spencer Tate on violin for “Turn Another Stone,” taking the crowd on a journey through various different shades of American roots music for the next few songs. Drummer Shaylee Walsh came onstage next for “Life Goes On,” a pre-pandemic song that Nichols has performed a number of different ways over the years. For longtime fans it may have brought to mind how much more distinctive a singer he’s become since he first recorded the song, which Saturday night was perhaps deceptively upbeat and chipper in its full-band arrangement, belying the conflicting emotions at its roots.

That’s the thing about the blues; it’s not supposed to be happy music. But Nichols’ lyrical style often twists the sadness or bitterness into a broader sense of empathy. His songs might start out personally but they tend to expand outward as they go along, so it only makes sense for the music to incorporate a multitude of styles. As on their studio versions, he added digital beats to the mix for “The Long Journey Home” and “The Fatalist Blues,” having transitioned gradually to a fully electrified sound by this point. “Living Hell” began with a massive atmospheric swell, evoking the spiritual pain of the song prior to any words, and for fans who pine for Nichols’ electric guitar wizardry, he took to the fretboard in earnest for a blazing introductory passage leading into “Sick Bed Blues.” This was the climax of the set, yet still the somewhat muddled sonics of the room probably left a lot of fans wanting more—those who weren’t jabbering away throughout it all, that is.

“I need you to do two things for me,” Nichols said following “The Difference,” now once again alone on the stage. “Be nice to each other, and shut the fuck up while I’m singing.” He then closed the show with one of his most heartbreaking tunes, “How To Love,” and, well, most of the crowd finally complied with the latter request. It was the end of a dynamic hour-plus journey; Nichols and his bandmates had done their part, but the venue and audience left a lot to be desired.

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