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Samuel James
Written by Ali Lauder   
Published on Monday, 28 July 2008
Five Stars

Jazz and Blues Festival
At the Minto Hotel; Run ended

AT FIRST GLANCE, you wouldn’t expect the sedate Minto Hotel to be the setting for a night of innovative traditional-style Delta blues. The lounge is pleasant enough with its dimly glowing red lights, but the huge circular tables and stage tucked in the corner lend an impersonal feeling to the room.  But while a raucous blues bar might have suited him better, Samuel James is the type of musician who could play anywhere - and take the spirit of his music with him.  And by the end of his set, that spirit had won over everyone in the room.

Hailing from Portland in Maine, the US's most North-Eastern state, it’s perhaps surprising that James ended up playing the blues.  But everything about him suggests he was born to it and, emulating classic pre-war Delta bluesmen, James is a master of his chosen style.  There's nothing disingenuous about him: everything feels real, whether it's his slick suit, his wry-back stories and anecdotes, his heartfelt vocals and playful lyrics that flirt with melancholy and loss, or the guitar playing which takes in all the accepted conventions of the genre but still finds time to create something very fresh and new.

James' anecdotes expose a deep understanding of the blues, its history and his influences, whilst his amiable personality not only serves to entertain and connect with the audience, but enhances the reception of each of his songs.  You find yourself listening out for references to his experiences of one-eyed biker girls, (literal) sleeping partners, homicidal girlfriends, heartbreak - and fishing.   His set was a well-crafted, thoughtfully balanced mix of originals, covers and instrumentals spanning 16 songs; it ended on the a cappella call-and-response of John the Revelator, by which time the rather subdued audience forgot themselves long enough to join in.

James’ own material is made up of wryly humorous songs - mostly concerning romantic mishap - and exploratory instrumentals.  As he said at one point, rhythm is kind of his thing: his music revolves around a strong rhythmic base, helped along by the feverish beating of his boot heel. The songs buzz, beat and hum; wander, waver and groove, with slide, chords and finger-picking.  But his playing's in stark contrast to his lyrical and vocal style: focussed, technical and precise, it works to raise the profile of a voice which, smoother and less weathered than those of his influences, gives his vocal delivery a truly unique aspect.

However, it is with his interpretations of classic blues numbers that James' formidable talents are really put on show. Including Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Leadbelly, Skip James, Townes Van Zandt, Bukka White and John Lee Hooker, James tackles a diverse mix of covers and makes them all his own. His almost rocking version of Hooker’s Hobo Blues incorporated a wildly improvised lap slide solo.  Making use of the guitar strings on the other side of the bridge, the other side of the nut and all of them in between, it displayed his flair for tastefully pushing the boundaries of a classic song.

But his extended take on the darkly atmospheric Cherry Ball Blues by Skip James emerged as the highlight of the performance for me. The original a haunting lament featuring Skip James’ signature down-tuned guitar buzz and eerie vocals, Samuel James’ take grimly meandered before intensifying the original tone into a dark, brooding, multi-textured epic that built slowly to a powerful climax.  Once again including slide, finger-picking, tempo shifts and boot-heel percussion, this one had it all.

While it’s apparent that James doesn’t take himself too seriously, he couldn’t be more serious about the blues - and anyone with a love for music would find much to appreciate with the passionate playing of his warm sound.  Playing live he is in his element, and tonight he brought authentic blues to an audience hungry for substance - even if they didn’t know it until the last few songs.  It was a strange choice of venue for a live performance of this kind, but watching James shift from measured love songs to rowdy stomps with carefree abandon, it was clear the incongruous setting hadn’t dampened his spirits at all.

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