Still in his twenties, Samuel James has become in just a few years a prominent name in the world of acoustic blues. Born in a musical family, his grandfather was a blues guitarist and performer of his generation while his father played piano and trombone. Busking in Ireland to survive after he broke up with a woman, he has mastered a variety of instruments while working in the acoustic blues vein, which he cherishes “the intimacy of one man screaming his heart out…a conversation between him and his audience as opposed to between band members. When I think of the best, most intimate forms of entertainment—maybe a flamenco guitar player, or a stand-up comedian, spoken word—it’s one individual. There’s a power there. You can’t listen to Son House or Skip James and tell me that an electric ZZ Top can touch that.” While he is rooted in the blues traditions of the past, his personal vision permeates his songs and performances. His third album, “For Rosa, Maeve, and Noreen,” is on Northern Blues and according to the publicity for this disc, “reflects Samuel’s live performances as much as one can, but more importantly it showcases why Samuel James doesn’t consider himself a bluesman per se, but a songster and storyteller within a style of music.”
His storytelling begins with “Bigger, Blacker Ben,” about Klansmen burning a cross on Ben’s lawn and the resulting confrontation with the cowardly racists. His performance uses a percussive accompaniment accented by slide guitar and somewhat typical of his freeform song approach that one hears through much of this. There are some similarities to the one-chord approach of some of the North Mississippi Hills Country style. I find his swirling accompaniments, and free-form song structures evoke the late Robert Pete Williams. “Cryin’ Blind,” illustrates this with his emphatic playing behind a vocal where he proclaims to his woman, “where were you when I was cryin’ blind, where were you when I was doing fine.” “Joe Fletcher’s Blues” features nimble fingerpicking as he sings about going to the boatyard so they can teach him to sail so his woman can’t pick up his trail. ‘A Sugar Farmhouse Valentine” sports lively 12-string playing, while “I’ll Break Your Promise,” with some moody slide guitar, has a ethereal feel suggestive of some of Skip James recordings. One of the song’s referenced by the album’s title, “Rosa’s Sweet Lil Love Song,” has a genial accompaniment as he sings about traveling just to see Rosa’s smile, and to get into her arms. He plays banjo on “Darlin’ Maeve,” which starts as he starts telling about her drinking six mountain jacks, and can’t count the money she stole, but still she thrills him to his soul, then as stepping up the tempo as he recalls picking her up off the ground last saturday and taking the rap from her thefts and other misdeeds. There is a spirited banjo accompaniment enlivens “Miss Noreen,” a story about a lady who dances to a banjo man for the crowd at a rough bar, The Buzzard’s Craw. “Trouble on Congress Street Rag,” is a free-form instrumental that displays his agile finger picking. “John Ross Said,” is a somber, moving song about the courthouse and President Jackson’s uprooting of the Cherokees from their home and land. The rest of the songs have their own intriguing elements whether his acapella vocal on “Wooden Tombstone,” or his lively use of multiple instruments on the closing “Path of Ashes.” He doesn’t shout his vocals as almost speaking them as his performances are somewhat conversational. Samuel James’ music is distinctive and fresh sounding. The result is a most beguiling recording that evokes older blues styles but is full of contemporary stories. Northern Blues recordings should be readily available from better retailers like bluebeatmusic.com and amazon as well as itunes.
The review copy was received from a media firm handling Samuel James’ publicity. This review previously appeared in the Issue 323 (January 2010) of Jazz & Blues Report, which can be downloaded at jazz-blues.com.