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Nathan James and the Rhythm Scratchers - What You Make of It

Delta Groove Music

14 songs; 59:50 minutes

Styles: “1920s acoustic blues, amplified juke joint hill country, 1950s uptown blues w/1960s soulful R&B”

Upon viewing the cover photograph of Southern California native Nathan James’ latest release, one might wonder: “Is that a guitar or a washboard?” Remarkably, it’s both, a homemade instrument dubbed the “Washtar Gitboard”! 2007 International Blues Challenge winner in the Solo/duo category with Ben Hernandez, James has never been one to follow convention. Neither have the Rhythm Scratchers (bassist Troy Sandow and drummer Marty Dodson). As Nathan reveals in the liner notes to “What You Make of It”, “[we recorded this album] setting up very few microphones and playing together in the same room without any isolation, or even headphones, to capture as much of our live sound as possible.” Each of the fourteen selections on this album, whether a cover or original song, is worthy of an analysis paragraph! Lacking space, however, here are three that exemplify “Washtar Soul”:

Track 01: “Chosen Kind”--“This is often our grand finale song at shows,” comments Nathan, “and never fails to grab everyone’s attention and raise the roof!” Truer words were never spoken. Through “Chosen Kind”, listeners will scratch their itch to dance as much as James scratches another of his creations, the “Tri-tar.” Troy Sandow’s harmonica in this hill country trance groove is addicting here, pulling out all the stops alongside James’ lead guitar.

Track 03: “Black Snakin’ Jiver”--Even though Nathan James says he took this traditional melody from an old Blind Boy Fuller song, “Jiver” is unique in its own right. The most noticeable instrument here is the one James plays with his mouth instead of his fast fingers: a kazoo! Rarely has its signature sound possessed such panache, especially in contemporary blues music. It’s endearing instead of annoying, and so is the solo breakdown in the middle of this jug-band/ragtime song, “always completely improvised every time, including on this recorded version,” James explains. For more amusing kazoo fun, check out Track 08: “Pretty Baby Don’t Be Late”.

Track 10: “Pain Inside Waltz”--Sometimes, the best numbers on a blues album are the most poignant. Case in point: “Pain Inside Waltz,” which Nathan says was inspired by Cajun waltz fiddle songs. “I fell for her charms,” he tells an ex-lover regretfully, “let another woman fall back in my arms, where you used to be…” What kind of “pain inside” is “not supposed to hurt?” It’s the bittersweet ache of love lost, and every couple dancing to this number will be compelled to remember it.

James Harman had taken 19-year-old Nathan James into his band; Harman guests here on vocals and harmonica on track 7. Over the years, Nathan James has played alongside such other legends as Kim Wilson, Pinetop Perkins and Billy Boy Arnold. In 2007, he and harp-er Ben Hernandez conquered the Memphis crowd at the International Blues Challenge, winning first place. Five years later, they’re still going strong. In their hearts, they know modern blues music is “What You Make of It!”

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 32 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.

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