Nikki O’Neill can throw down blistering rock solos, but soul music guides her originals

Nikki O’Neill can do Keith Richards but prefers
Teenie Hodges
Photo by Chris Moseman

Like heritage artists who’ve weathered generational shifts from ’90s grunge and riot grrls to Lilith Fair folkery and laptop composing, Playa del Rey’s Nikki O’Neill has responded warmly to the burgeoning field of Americana. It’s not hard to understand why. While mainstream pop (and, to a significant degree, country) have redefined parameters with electronic beats and synthesizers, Americana remains rooted in melodic storytelling and stringed and fretted instruments, especially guitars. And O’Neill is a fierce, commanding guitarist.

Rockers like Robert Plant and Heart’s Ann Wilson have also embraced Americana — the former with deep, insightful understanding of its Appalachian folk and Delta blues history, the latter with passionate relish for an earthy genre that values genuine singing. As a singer, O’Neill is no Wilson — her voice is much lighter — but like the Heart frontwoman she seems to identify with Americana’s melodicism and songcraft.

Born in L.A. and raised in Sweden, O’Neill teethed on classic rock melodies, and she can throw down blistering lead guitar solos like a pro, whether covering Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones or showing YouTube students how it’s done in instructional videos. She has terrific taste in guitar heroes: Memphis legend and Al Green sideman Teenie Hodges, Prince, and Pops Staples.

Those soul influences are more discernible than anything else in the midtempo tunes on her self-titled 2012 EP as well as last year’s “Love Will Lead You Home.” The bright melodic bounce of the latter’s hopeful title track, “In the Waking Moments of the Day,” and the bluesy “A Second Chance” would fit comfortably on a KJZZ “Nothin’ but the Blues” playlist. Songs from the new EP will dominate the set she’ll play with her band at TRiP Friday.

— Bliss Bowen

Nikki O’Neill performs with her band at 9:15 p.m. Friday (May 25) at TRiP, 2102 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. $10. Call (310) 396-9010 or visit O’Neill also participates in a songwriter round from 8 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday (May 31) at UnUrban Coffee House, 3301 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. No cover.