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James Armstrong – Blues At The Border

Catfood Records

11 tracks – 45.10 minutes

Californian bluesman James Armstrong has been round the blues block before. He issued three CDs on Hightone but the last of those was in 2000 so it is some time since he had a recording contract. A meeting with Bob Trenchard (bass player for The Rays and frequent collaborator with Johnny Rawls) resulted in James acquiring a new label, a bass player and a songwriter: Bob produced and co-wrote three of the tracks at his studio in Texas while the other eight tracks were recorded in New York. James is the only common denominator, completely different ensembles playing on the two sets of recordings. However, the instrumentation is similar (drums, bass, keys, backing vocals) so the album maintains a consistent sound throughout.

The CD opens in funky style with “Everything Good To Ya”, a Sam Taylor song that picks up on what his granddad used to say to him: “Not everything that’s good to ya, ain’t always good for ya.” Bob Trenchard and Sandie Carroll’s “Somebody Got To Pay” is the first of the Texas recordings and the catchy melody floats on an organ riff and a chorus of backing vocalists. The smooth sound continues on “Baby Can You Hear Me?”, another Bob Trenchard song, this time in collaboration with Kay Greenwade. The song is about loneliness and James’ vocal expresses those emotions beautifully.

Title track “Blues At The Border” is James’ own composition and expresses some of the frustrations that travellers feel travelling in the post 9/11 era. “You might take a bus, you might take a train. Even if you walk it will be faster than a plane” James sings and those who travel by plane will recognize the frustration at having to spend as much time going through the procedures as actually flying! From this song alone you can see why James’ songs have been used in the movies on several occasions as he has a nice touch with a lyric. The track also features some fine slide guitar playing.

The next two tracks are James Armstrong originals, both written in collaboration with John Hahn. “Devil’s Candy” again features some nice slide work as James sings of the addictive attractions of the opposite sex. “Nothing Left To Say” has an attractive rhythm and a catchy guitar motif which help to sweeten the lyrics of regret at the failure of the relationship. There then follows a pair of contrasting songs from the pen of Dave Steen. “High Maintenance Woman” is a mid-paced tune with an amusing lyric: “She’s got more anger than a picket line, more troubles than Robert Johnson, more issues than the New York Times. If she wasn’t any work, it wouldn’t be no doggone fun”. A funky guitar break adds to the enjoyment of a well-crafted song. “Good Man, Bad Thing” was covered by Michael Burks on his “I Smell Smoke” album and in keeping with that background the song features one of the heavier guitar riffs (and catchiest numbers) on the CD.

“Young Man With The Blues” is the final James Armstrong song on the album. The longest cut on the album, it’s a stately slow blues and features some excellent guitar. Lyrically we are again in the area of failed relationships but the quality of the playing and singing raise it above the standard slow blues. I particularly enjoyed the change in rhythm, swirling organ and clean guitar lines that separate the vocal verses. From the pen of the late Texan Oscar Perry, “Brand New Man” has something of a jazzy feel and more strong organ/guitar ensemble playing. Final track “Long Black Car” is the third Bob Trenchard production, on one of his own compositions. As on the earlier Trenchard songs, the chorus of backing vocalists definitely adds to the sound and James brings some nice soulful playing to the party as we are told that “You won’t get to heaven in a long black car” – bad news if you already own such a vehicle!

My summary is that this is a very good CD of well played and catchy material. It is good to welcome James back to recording after a long gap and he deserves to do well with this album. Recommended.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK.  He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music and is currently planning a visit to the Tampa Bay Blues Festival.

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