The Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a hidden gem tucked away in a corner of the national blues circuit. (Full disclosure: I am a Nebraskan). I recall the smallish club hosting incendiary shows by Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials and many other greats. While I did occasionally jam to Booker T. and the MGs tunes with friends, little did I realize how much homegrown blues, soul, and funk were gestating in the modest college town — or in nearby Omaha — due to clubs like the Zoo Bar.
But the secret's out, due to the rising popularity of one Josh Hoyer, a Lincoln native who long ago got hooked on the songs he heard emanating from the Zoo.
"I'd just go listen to music coming outta the back, and I was like, 'Man, this is the coolest thing!'" he says. "When I turned 21, I was a regular there, checking out all of the bands that came through from all over. They needed a spot to stop in that middle-of-nowhere zone. Being able to see these international and national touring blues and R&B bands in such an intimate environment, it really taught me a lot about the energy and magic of the live show — being able to see people like Lil' Ed and Big John Dickerson. And Magic Slim, of course."
That last name holds special meaning for Hoyer — and most of the Lincoln music community. Morris Holt, aka Magic Slim, left his native Torrance, Mississippi, for the Chicago blues scene while in his twenties, releasing his first record, the incredible "Scufflin'," in 1966. By 1994, with an esteemed career in the blues under his belt, he resettled in Lincoln with his family, a decision that would galvanize the local music community. As Hoyer notes, Slim "really influenced a lot of young guys that were interested in playing. I'd definitely call him a mentor. And his brother, Nick Holt, was also a great blues and soul singer. People may not think of Lincoln as a blues town or a roots music town, but there were some gems there that really taught a lot of us young guys what it was about."
Developing his talents at open mic nights, then with jam bands, Hoyer expanded his horizons. "I love the blues, but it's never been something I feel like I quite nail. I lean more toward the rhythms of New Orleans." After a stint in the Big Easy, which he credits for much of his growth as a singer and keyboardist, Hoyer toured as a saxophonist for singer E.C. Scott. "I learned a lot from her. And that was when I realized that I'm not good at being a side man. I had ideas of my own, and I wanted to write my own music. From that point forward, I've been a band leader."
- Great Plains James Photography
- Josh Hoyer
Following his own muse meant wedding his love of classic soul to a groove-based improvisational approach akin to Medeski, Martin, and Wood, whom he cites as an inspiration. The end result resembles the more ambitious sounds of 1970s soul, as Hoyer leads a five-piece band, Soul Colossal, through his own particular stew of influences.
Hoyer and Soul Colossal are coming off a stellar 2017. A month-long tour of Europe culminated in the live album, Live! at Ancienne Belgique, and last spring found Hoyer singing for an audience of millions on NBC's The Voice. As Rolling Stone reported, "Hoyer took on The Chi-Lites' 1972 R&B Number One hit 'Oh Girl.' His smooth interpretation, along with his sonorous vocals, convinced both Shelton and fellow coach Gwen Stefani to turn their chairs as he confidently soared through the chorus."
Hoyer, reflecting on last year's good fortune, says, "I never really intended to be on the road again, but people really liked what we were doing, and it worked out for me and my family. I wasn't gunning for the top when we put the band together, we just wanted to write some good music and play it for people, and they responded — so we keep going."