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Brookes Blues Bar, Friday 16th November 2007
Review by David Atkinson
Steve James lends weight to the notion that the opposable thumb is all well and good but that it is only when a guitar string is put in its way that it really begins to come into its own. So on top of my excitment at seeing someone who over the years has greatly informed my taste and musical stylings through his albums and books, we must add to it the whole history of human evolution up to this point as well. What a night.
Employing just single large-diaphragm microphone, Steve was free to move about and play with the dynamics - so the quiet bits were quiet and the loud bits loud, rather than the usual crispy threshold provided by on-board pickups. It was as natural a sound as possible really, simply making what he did that bit louder. It's a technique I'd like to see more of in these intimate venues because it really preserves the nuance of the performance. It certainly suited the set up at Brook's at least.
So, without being anchored by cables or a chair, Steve danced about the mic with a pretty wild look in his eyes, coaxing a wide range of sounds from his wooden National. He worked through a number of tunings - standard, Dropped-D, Open G, Open D, and what sounded like Open G and D Minor as well. A friend commented that what Steve does on the guitar, in terms of phrasing and general dexterity, is pretty much unique to him and I had to agree. He is certainly a musician's musicians and that bit of understanding affords a deeper appreciation of his music, but it is actually quite irrelevant - for me it was quickly sidelined by his quirky humour and enthusiasm for the show.
Ah, blues fans love their shibboleths and Steve surely tested the crowd with his preamble to Freestone County Blues. Just Who's grave was he visiting? The lack of disclosure was an genuine annoyance so I was compelled to Google it over the weekend. Now, unless I've been misinformed - which is not like the Internet - it turns out it was Blind Lemon Jefferson who was burried there. Of course! I feel like such a casual blues fan! Where are my hat and Ray-Bans?
Excuse the digression... anyway, the talky bits really framed some of the songs and served to heighten the sense of reality - Freestone County, Talco Girl & Sonny Payne - they all shared themes of rural life and disappearing places and (without getting too Proustian) 'rememberance of things past'.
To offset this the rest of the tunes were about fishing, trains, woman and alcohol, in a variety of combinations and included a couple of traditional numbers as well - Rocks & Gravel, Blues in the Bottle, and Milwaukee Blues. These last three are all songs I've spent time trying to learn play but hearing them live reasserts the beauty of many of the lyrics:
here's my dollar, babe, I made it in the rain
It's a hard old dollar, but you can spend it just the same
For the instrumental Sebastopol - the tune that gave the tuning its name - he related the history of the piece and how up to a point it reflected real events before taking on a life of its own in the hands of other performers. Hear those harmonics? They represent distant trumpets sounds. Well I'll be damned.
He used a resonator mandolin on the Juanita Stomp, describing it as the equivalent of having in his act a performing pony that could count to ten with its hoof. I coudn't work out if that was to the discredit of the instrument or the animal before he started the song though. I'd always thought of the reso-mandolin as the musical equivalent of a nuclear missile; that in the wrong hands it spells an indiscriminant end for anyone within range. But I suppose that could be said of most performing animal as well.
His two sets were bookended by my two favourite tunes - Stack Lee's Blues and The Change. The former employs some beautiful cascading slid and open-string runs that underpin the clever first person narration of a familiar folk tale, while the latter is a story/ephiphanic halucination running to some ten minutes and hilariously delivered over pretty much a one-chord vamp. It sounds like an ordeal but it is not. Over the years it has taken on a life of its own until it now borders on performace art, packing in more musings, improvisations and belly laughs than I can remember.
Steve said he's likely to be back in the UK next year so there'll be chance again to catch one of the finest exponents of 'modern' country blues there is.