Thursday, May 24, 2012

Nathan James Makes Plenty Out Of It

Nathan James mixes home-made guitars such as his tritar (a three string instrument made out of a washboard and axe handle) and other similar instruments (such as the baritone Washtar, a baritone guitar built over a washboard) with a deep knowledge of early blues styles as well as gospel and 50s to 60s blues and R&B. While he has recorded in a duo format with Ben Hernandez, on his new Delta Groove CD, What You Make Of It, he has his touring band, The Rhythm Scratchers with Troy Sandow on bass and harmonica and Marty Dodson on drums and percussion. James Harman (with whom James toured for three and a half years) plays harmonica on one track while saxophonists Johnny Viau and Archie Thompson are present on two.

It would be easy to look at James and his homemade instruments as a novelty, but he and the Rhythm Scratchers certain get beyond that to present a distinctive style with James’ natural sounding and assured vocals and thoughtful, propulsive playing up front with the rhythm section providing a solid foundation. This is evident on the solid cover of Jimmy McCracklin’s Later On, with the crisp rhythm underlying the vocal. On the next track, the propulsive groove of Get To The Country, on which Sandow wails on harp while James mix hard chords and agile picking, while Dodson adds some rhythmic accents here..

One treat is his reworking of Blind Boy Fuller’s Black Snake Jivin’ with his adept mix of finger picking and rapping the groove on the washboard with kazoo provides a skiffle feel at times. By the way, listening to this number (I am not familiar with Fuller’s original), it was clear that Fuller reworked Eddie Miller’s I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water which has become a blues standard. Miller recorded his song in 1936 and Fuller in 1938. There is a philosophical bent to Make It On Your Own, a soulful ballad nicely sung with more nice harp from Sandow.

James Harman wrote Rhino Horn and he guests on vocal and harmonica is built on a emphatic beat from Dodson while James’ lays down a slide-based backing on the tritar. What’s nice is the space in the performance which is characteristic of the entire recording. James and crew avoid trying the fill every aural space and allows the silences to speak as much as what is played. The rag-tinged Pretty Baby Don’t Be Late, has James on resonator guitar and kazoo with nice finger picking and a solid backbeat from Dodson and followed by Blues Headache, a lazy harmonica feature for Sandow with the bass-toned tritar slide providing a nice contrast. Pain Inside Waltz, found inspiration in cajun fiddle tunes with a poignant vocal. The horns add to the funk groove in James’ interpretation of Bobby Patterson’s “I’m a Slave to You,” on which James has a rollicking solo. The horns are also present for James’ First and the Most, a ballad that has a swamp pop feel to it.

After the insistent Hill Country Blues groove of You Led Me On, this disc concludes with what James calls a Homesick James’ inspired closing instrumental, Tri-Tar Shuffle Twist, with some nice slide that is suggestive of the late Chicago blues legend’s style that provides a fresh take on this style. I was not familiar with Nathan James’ music prior to What You Make Of It, but I was impressed to already acquire one of his prior recordings. There is some seriously good, original blues by Nathan James and The Rhythm Scratchers here.

Delta Groove Records provided me with the review copy. Here is Nathan James Trio at the 2011 Portland Waterfront Blues Festival.

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