[2 March 2010]
“Pre-war blues is much more intimate for me ... much like a conversation. I’m not really drawn to anything contemporary because it’s not nearly as engaging”, explains Samuel James about the music he obviously loves. And there you have it in a nutshell. Because it’s this love of traditional acoustic blues music which informs everything the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Portland, Maine, has recorded thus far. That’s not to say he’s a mere copyist avidly listening to field recordings or picking over the musical bones of Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt—although their influences can be heard. Neither is he a fervent revivalist. James is just a very good blues musician using traditional tools to tell his own, quite often humorous, stories that on occasion conjure up memories of blues ‘n’ folk singer Michelle Shocked’s 1986 debut The Texas Campfire Tapes.
James’s third album, For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen, follows on so closely from his debut for NorthernBlues, 2008’s Songs Famed For Sorrow and Joy, that the two records, both produced by David Travers-Smith (Ani DiFranco), could have been laid down at the same five-day session. Once again, James goes it solo, playing everything from resonator and 12-string guitars to banjo and harmonica (which he claims to have learned in Ireland while busking) to piano, while using his feet to stomp out percussion when the mood takes him. Then there are the recurring themes and characters who inhabit his backporch tales.
The opener, “Bigger, Blacker Ben”, a feisty slide-guitar foot stomper, sees the return of Big Black Ben, the nemesis of a racist local Sheriff on the previous record, who here bumps heads with a pack of cross-burning Klansmen with amusing results. James’s mythical “Delta folk hero” Sugar Smallhouse, who gave his name to the bluesman’s debut album The Return of Sugar Smallhouse along with two numbers on his sophomore release, reappears on one of the album highlights, “A Sugar Smallhouse Valentine”. This adventure finds the chump for love turning into a desperate yet humorous no-count on that most special of special days as articulate Piedmont-style double-picking jauntily buoys him along on his merry way. And of course, there’s James’s lady who has another track dedicated to her, “Rosa’s Sweet Lil’ Love Song”, in addition to a third of the album title. However, it’s Maeve and Noreen, the other two ladies who get a mention on the album cover, who get the better songs. Both numbers are country banjo-fueled high-steppers. “Darlin’ Maeve” is about a hard-drinking and stealing woman and her no-hope, blinded-by-love fool of a man, while “Miss Noreen” is strutting her stuff “dancing for the philistines”.
Elsewhere, James showcases his emotive finger-picking style with the instrumental humdinger “Trouble On Congress Street Rag”, introduces us to “Joe Fletcher’s Blues”, and provides a plaintive, belated plea on behalf of Cherokee Chief John Ross (Guwisguwi) to President Jackson on “John Ross Said”, a story-song about the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation on the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma in 1838.
Like the pre-war bluesmen he admires, James has the “songster’s” ability to pull you in with down-home, down-to-earth tales that speak volumes, and intimate arrangements that suck you in so far you forget just how hard you are listening.