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Here at Blues in London, we’re operating on the belief that there’s a lot of great music out there that can broadly (or narrowly) be described as blues, and that it’s being done by all sorts of people of all ages. Quite a few of them are young, trying to break through, just getting up and running. And some of these have such an individual approach and sound, such obvious talent and ‘differentness’, that you feel they must make that breakthrough and achieve some sort of success by anyone’s definition of that. Samuel James is firmly in that category.
He’s 28 years old and he’s from Portland, Maine. He plays the hell out of a dobro and a nylon-strung guitar in a style that’s all his own but waves a cheery hand at the acoustic blues greats of the 1920s and 1930s. He writes his own material, and for this he’s tapping into a very promising non-standard seam – storytelling, little vignettes of life, anecdotes, and character descriptions. He sings with power and abandon, but no pretension. The delivery is strong but he’s singing, not shouting. The material is firmly blues but it’s not samey or formulaic blues, every number’s got something a bit different to offer.
Samuel James is a complete original. I appreciate that what I know about the music business could be written on a gnat’s bottom, but I think he is destined for great things. Get his debut album, Songs Famed For Sorrow and Joy, and check him out for yourself. I have a hunch that a lot of people are going to ‘discover’ him.
He came over here for a week in July, playing a bunch of dates in the environs of London put on by promoter Pete Feenstra, and I caught him at the one up in Whetstone, at the excellent Bull & Butcher venue. This is a sizeable but not cavernous back room of a pub. It’s smart and pleasant, a proper gigs venue, with a big stage and a fair bit of seating (at least for this gig).
Samuel kicked off on the dobro with an instrumental – he does a couple of these on the album and very good they are too, keeping the listener’s interest with light and shade and changes of dynamics. The album is all original material, but Samuel’s live set includes a few versions of numbers by the great names, and next up was his take on Son House’s Death Letter. He introduced it as ‘the greatest song ever written’ and proceeded to demonstrate why that isn’t necessarily an exaggeration.
Most people steer clear of covering Son House, probably because the man and his style were simply too scary but Samuel did something notable here. He didn’t attempt to copy the original, he did his own take, with animated delivery and flailing guitar giving you some idea of what the young Son House must have been like. The booze-riddled but still brilliant old man that’s the most familiar picture of Son wasn’t present here; this was a young man’s song being done by a young man.
Next up was his own Sleepy Girl Blues, which featured some excellent slide playing, and in which the guitar took a fair bit of punishment. It was a full frontal assault, not some quiet, sad version of the Delta Blues. This could never be background music, or dismissed as nice but unexceptional. It collars you.
Soon the nylon-strung guitar came out and some very fast but not showing-off finger picking was unleashed. I don’t know of anyone else playing finger-picked blues on a nylon-strung guitar, and this definitely gives Samuel something else that keeps him out of the run-of-the-mill. First on this was his song The ‘Here Comes Nina’ Country Ragtime Surprise, which he informed us was about a woman who tried to kill me’. It was simply great. This was followed by the brief but terrific One-Eyed Katie, about a biker’s wife, a woman described as ‘all woman but not one bit lady’, a woman who ‘don’t see so good but don’t look so bad’. Not, I suspect, that that was anything he said to her face.
His take on Mississippi John Hurt’s much, much covered John Henry breathed new life into the song, making it, as originally intended, a real story and demonstrating the delivery and dynamics of a real storyteller. The guitar continued to pump out nifty picking and melodic riffs on originals like Rosa’s Cute Little Love Song and Baby Doll and then the staggeringly brilliant Mid-December Blues, for me the standout song on the album. It has a killer riff that Blind Lemon Jefferson would have grinned at coming up with, but it’s something totally fresh too – a really, really good new blues song that’s memorable. It’s got everything – great tune, great riff, great words, and it alone shows why there’s something very special about this artist.
Next came a Skip James medley. Skip’s a bit of a hero of Samuel’s, who he says ‘didn’t take nothing from no one’ as a musician. In doing these great songs, he didn’t attempt carbon copies at all, but put his own figures and bits of business in, so that in a sense he made them his own songs. And, as they once were for Skip, they were young men’s songs again.
The set wrapped up with Hooker’s Hobo Blues, with some lap slide playing and plenty of showmanship on top of Hooker’s patent boogie thing, and then Samuel was called back for an encore, at which point he demonstrated not inconsiderable harmonica skills.
To get the full picture of why Samuel James is something special, you had to be there. Come to think of it, why weren’t you? Make it up to yourself by getting the album, and don’t miss him next time he’s here.