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Samuel James - Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy
NorthernBlues Music

13 songs; 53:45 minutes; Library Quality
Genre: Delta Blues; Solo Acoustic

Samuel James must wonder, “Is it irony or evolution?” The Blues music scene that reveres its one-man-and-his-guitar originators, like Robert Johnson and Son House, today is mostly band oriented. From clubs to live-music-fans to the record buying public, mainly the interest is in groups and ensembles. The solo artist is not totally dead, of course. For example, the Blues Foundation has a “Solo/Duo” category for its annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

While struggling for a larger share of attention, a solo artist occasionally comes along with undeniably creative and joyous talent, as proven by first-listens to a new CD. Such an artist is Portland, Maine’s Samuel James. Still in his twenties, James’ genius is found in his ability to take the pre-war blues idiom and passionately move it into the 21st century without revivalist intent or butchering it into a rap mess. With musical influences ranging from Skip James and Kokomo Arnold to Gus Cannon and Charley Patton, James is a master of finger style on acoustic guitars, slide on resonator guitars, banjo, harmonica, and piano. Vocally, James’ mid-register singing makes one think – yep, this is the voice of blues!

James’ musical lineage stretches back to his grandfather (b. 1890) who played guitar in contemporary blues styles of the era. James’ father was a professional pianist and trombone player. Samuel learned to tap dance at five, learned piano at eight, and toured the Northeastern circuit professionally by 12. Samuel lost his mother at age 12 and spent his teens in foster homes. At 17 he reunited and rekindled a relationship with his father. Beyond inheritance came acquisition -- Samuel James fully discovered his musicianship after a girlfriend broke his heart.

This album is James’ second CD and his debut for NorthernBlues Music. The CD was recorded by numbers: One artist, five days, nine mics, two guitars, one banjo, both feet for percussion, 100% acoustic equals thirteen original songs by James. “It was the hardest week of my life, which is saying something considering I grew up black, in Maine, in white foster homes,” he said. The CD was produced by David Travers-Smith.

The set opener is a ragtime number that might have fit better along about track five. “The ‘Here Comes Nina’ Country-Ragtime Surprise” track does introduce us immediately to deft finger picking and James’ voice that grows on the listener faster than a horror movie viral plague.

Slowing the pace slightly, “Sunrise Blues” showcases intricate double-picking as James simultaneously sustains the bass rhythms and lead melodies. The anxiety of the protagonist facing the electric chair comes keenly through as he can neither know his alleged offense nor end his suffering through suicide.

In “Big Black Ben” the protagonist, unfairly harassed by the local sheriff, gets his revenge in a most satisfying way for him and a most unexpected manner for the listener.

Each song is a story, often, a humorous tale or a tale from history (“The Sad Ballad of Ol’ Willie Chan” – 1870’s Coolee Railroaders), of the discomfort from wrong turn lovers, or small town racism, or a folk tale. The songs reflect that, lyrically, James is among elite bluesmen - the clever songster and storyteller.  His songs are often written as linear stories, novels in musical format with the denouement sometimes coming in the final seven seconds. Some song titles are, themselves, a story – for example, “Sugar Smallhouse and The Legend of the Wandering Siren Cactus, and the hard-driving “Runnin’ From My Baby’s Gun, Whilst Previously Watchin’ Butterflies From My Front Porch.” The latter’s an instrumental, by the way.

When James does stop singing to do another instrumental like “Wooooooo Rosa,” one’s first instinct is to do a quick search at Youtube to see if there is a video available. That would be the only way to improve this seven minute masterpiece.

Fifty four minutes later, one realizes that he has been listening more carefully than normal to catch the details of each story-song. That makes Samuel James a rare breed in the blues world, indeed.

James is steeped in the traditions and has created his own voice that speaks with clarity. The historical torch has been passed to him from both today’s elder masters and yesterday’s originators. He is carrying it very well.

Reviewer James “Skyy Dobro” Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ and Blues Blast contributor. His weekly radio show “Friends of the Blues” can be heard each Thursday from 4:30 – 6:00pm on WKCC 91.1 FM in Kankakee, IL

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