James Blood Ulmer: No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions

Matt Cibula

James Blood Ulmer

No Escape from the Blues: the Electric Lady Sessions

Label: Hyena
US Release Date: 2003-09-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

What do you need to know about James Blood Ulmer so that I can get to talking about this record? Here's what you need to know: he's played in Ornette Coleman's multiculturally harmolodic Prime Time band and he's landed two of his hardcharging psychedelic hard-blues solo records in Chuck Eddy's list of the 500 best heavy metal albums ever. (Numbers 201 and 220, I believe.) So basically, there he is in a nutshell: the only axman technically accomplished enough to master Coleman's math-jazz system, but not afraid to crank it up to 12 or 13 or so when he needs to. You're just not going to find that combination too often.

But Ulmer's later 1980s and 1990s work wasn't always as successful as Black Rock or Free Lancing. A succession of "bluesy" albums (very different from blues albums) failed to break Ulmer in with the AAA crowd, and his collaborations with Bill Laswell somehow failed to give him the kind of hipster cred that can sometimes make up for lack of sales. Paint a portrait: one of the greatest rock guitarists in the world, passing from memory even as his skills were at their peak.

And then we have Vernon Reid. Remember his band Living Colour, which kicked out the MTV black-metal jamz back in the late 1980s? Well, everything didn't exactly turn to gold for them after "Cult of Personality" left heavy rotation status. Diminishing returns -- due mostly to the fact that Reid's lyrics never matched up to his pop-metal hooks or his band's musicianship or his incredible string-shredding solos, or even his hair -- led to unfair relegation to the "where is he now" file.

It's not entirely clear how Reid and Ulmer ended up in Memphis for three days in April 2001, how Sun Studios got booked, and how Reid was able to coax 14 searing performances of classic blues songs out of Ulmer and his band -- but when the results turn out like 2001's Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, maybe it's best not to ask. Trad and avant at the same time, scaled back so far that Ulmer's sly voice carried as much weight as his guitar, the songs on Memphis Blood were all over the board, ranging from hardcore John Lee Hooker and Son House and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf songs to well-known Willie Dixon popblues like "Little Red Rooster" and "I Love the Life I Live" all the way to the minstrel-esque campfest "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal". It proved all over again what a great guitarist Ulmer was -- the centerpiece of the album is an 8½-minute take on "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)", and I swear to god you haven't heard anything this heavy and tortured since Guns N Roses died -- but also reminded everyone who heard it just how funny and soulful Ulmer could be, what an absolute presence he is, and what a shame it is that no one had done this for him before. (And what an influence he must have been on one Vernon Reid.)

It got great reviews everywhere, and was even nominated for a Grammy, but you've never heard it, and here's why: it was released by M Records on September 7, 2001. We all know what happened four days later. Six days after that, M Records went out of business. Fortunately for all of us, Hyena has reissued it; hey, you can never have too many versions of "Fattening Frogs for Snakes".

But, even better, Hyena gave Reid and Ulmer the green light for another one. This time, instead of going back down south to Memphis, they traveled to the studio Jimi Hendrix built, Electric Lady in New York City. Same band, same timeframe (three days in April), and the same ambition: to kick as much ass as possible. But No Escape from the Blues is far from a retread of Memphis Blood; the songs are more obscure, the musicians are trying stranger things, and Ulmer is … well, he's James Blood Ulmer. But he's in control.

The opener, Jimmy Reed's "Goin' to New York", is so loose that it verges on jug-band chic (if there is such a thing, which I doubt); while Ulmer is singing about how he's gonna get some of that New York quiz show money, everyone's going off: Charlie Burnham is strangling his mandolin, David Barnes is blowing Blues 101 on his harmonica, Mark Peterson's bass is hitting about one note per measure, and everyone's drawling "Goin'a New York" on more or less the beat. When Blood starts his solo, it is compact, scary-intense -- and acoustic. That's right: he's slamming and scraping those strings, pulling off some rumbling overtones, but nothing's plugged in. You're almost not even surprised when drummer Aubrey Dayle shifts into double-time and everyone starts doing sassy jive conversation in the background. Reid has created the perfect atmosphere here; nothing sounds better than a bunch of wonderful musicians who are not taking themselves too seriously, and that's what he's able to coax out of them. Maybe this is Reid's true calling, and maybe he should just do this kind of stuff forever.

This vibe is continued even when the guitars are plugged in. "The Hustle Is On" gives us the boogie-woogie we so richly deserve, with a great Ulmer vocal performance about how crappy life is in a shitty economy, and the squalling Chicago-style solo is also muted and over in about 18 seconds. After another metal minisolo like this later on in the album, Ulmer pulls off a teasingly sexy duet with Queen Esther on John Lee Hooker's "You Know, I Know" and sounds like a real loverman, albeit one with a loud freakin' guitar, which comes back after about a minute and starts burning the place down, and reappears even later in tasteful jazz solo form. There's even a tapdancing solo by Maya Smullyan Jenkins on "Bright Lights, Big City" that actually fits right in instead of sounding pretentious and crappy and showoffy.

But for every mellow relaxed man-there-must-have-been-some-good-weed-in-the-studio song, there is an equal and opposite one that peels back the land and shows you the pits of hell. "Who's Been Talkin'", the Howlin' Wolf classic, shifts the emphasis from the vocal (because no one can compete with the Wolf) to the authoritative groove, giving it extra teeth with a Hammond B-3 and a rock feel on the drums -- Ulmer drops his voice down as deep as it can go and speaks the lyrics like a funky Lurch. He remakes his own song "Are You Glad to Be in America" like he just heard it himself, compressing all the sounds into the event horizon of his mumbling acoustic guitar and muttered stuttering vocals: "All the lovin' we share / All the burden we bear / All the people are free / Home of the brave / And slavery is obsolete". It's a solo acoustic performance, and all the more intense and sad for it.

But the tipping point comes when Ulmer takes the Johnny Copeland song "Ghetto Child" and turns it into Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" with a vocal. This song is the most emotionally raw of anything on either record -- Ulmer identifies with this narrator, a lost kid who tells us, "My mother is sick in the bed, almost dyin' / And I ain't seen my daddy in a long time". And then he launches into a solo that flips back and forth between three different tones (conventional "rock", wah-wah psych freakout, and textbook blues) on a note-by-note basis, and proves once and for all that his name deserves mention on any list of best guitar players from here on out, forever and ever, amen. It's not a long solo, and it doesn't try to do anything fancy except blow the back of your mind open and set you up for the next verse. When he whispers "Now this is the part that move me the most" before moaning the verse about how the kid gets turned away from school for not wearing any shoes, you know objectively that this doesn't happen anymore . . . but you feel incredibly sad anyway, just like the kid, just like Blood, just like we all should until every last slum and housing project and favela is torn down.

So it's completely okay that there is little dinky stuff here like the title track and the honky-tonkin' closer, "The Blues Had a Baby and Called It Rock and Roll", because it helps to ease the pain. It's wonderful that Reid and Ulmer turn the chestnut "Trouble in Mind" into a sitardrone-dominated ambient piece, because it allows us to hear what a stylist Blood is on the microphone, how nuanced and sympathetic a singer and interpreter he is, and how Vernon Reid has found himself again, this time as a resurrector and nurturer of the artists who taught him how to be who he is.

And it's fine when the record is over, because that just means you can play it again.

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