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East Side SlimBy East Side Slim

Magic Slim & The Teardrops – Midnight Blues Samuel James – Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy
{NorthernBlues, 2008}

Samuel is a young talent from who grew up in Maine. His music is a time-warp of sorts, harkening back to pre-World War II songster traditions. You’ll hear shadings of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Mississippi Fred McDowell in his music, as well as Piedmont ragtime influences.

Samuel’s new CD, Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy, features his own compositions set to his guitar playing, singing and foot tapping. His songwriting is very fresh, and seems closer to short stories put to music rather than the random verses about women, whiskey and gambling so common to the older blues forms.

I found Samuels singing style, a sort of talk-sing at times and a shout at others, very urgent in nature. His vocals grab you, pulling you into his songs. James’ vocal delivery is not unlike that of a local St. Louis musician Matt “Lightnin’ Thunders” Walsh from the Rum Drum Ramblers. If you’ve heard Matt sing, it will give you some idea of how Samuel James phrases his vocals. For a very nice full bio about Samuel visit his page on the Piedmont Talent website -http://www.piedmonttalent.com/bios.cfm?ID=115.

The Songs:

1. The “Here Comes Nina” Country-Ragtime Surprise:
That’s a long title, but there’s a longer one yet to come. This is an infectious little tune, with a humorous lyric and a cool little ragtime feel to the guitar work. The guitar work has a similar feel to Mississippi John Hurt’s up-tempo songs. Don’t let the humor fool you, because this girl “Nina” means business.

2. Sunrise Blues:
This song is played and sung in a solo Delta style. It’s dark and foreboding yet is very accessible to the listener. It’s also got one of the shortest titles on this CD.

3. Big Black Ben:
Samuel works the slide guitar on this song. Big Black Ben had quite a way of getting even with the local sheriff… talk about your paybacks! You’ll have to listen to the lyric if you want to know the full story. Again, Samuel pursues a serious subject with some sly, humorous lyrical twists.

4. Sugar Smallhouse Heads For The Hills:
Mr. James plays the Resophonic here in a style that makes you think you’re hearing a banjo, or maybe it really is a banjo. There is no banjo listed on the liner notes, but I have found that Samuel does play banjo. Samuel shows off in his playing in this tune about as much as he does anywhere on the CD, but all to the benefit of the song. This song is a quick-tempo morality tale.

5. Wooooooo Rosa:
Yep, that’s seven oh’s in Woooooo, as well as seven minutes of instrumental guitar music. This song starts as a mid-tempo tune, with loads of tasty acoustic Resophonic slide. The man knows his way around a guitar! As the song moves along it picks up speed and complexity, then backs off again, then picks up speed, backs off, etc… It sounds like the entire song could be a metaphor for certain carnal relations twixt a man and a woman. Actually, that’s exactly what it is!

6. One-Eyed Katie:
Poor old One-Eyed Katie. Don’t feel too sorry for her though, as Samuel tells you just the kind of woman she really is. This song is very short, topping out at just over 1 ½ minutes, and is done-up in the John Hurt style again.

7. Mid-December Blues:
This song is a slower tempo blues (not slow, but not quick either.) It’s carried along by a gentle guitar pattern and world-weary vocal. For good measure there’s a little whistling thrown into the mix, too. This is a pretty tune; I enjoyed it very much.

8. Sugar Smallhouse And The Legend Of The Wandering Siren Cactus:
No, this is NOT the longest song title here. There’s an even longer one still to come! Miss Smallhouse is back, featured by name in the second tune of the CD. Ol’ Samuel was trippin’ a bit when he wrote the words to this one. That said it’s a very cool track. There is a lot of imagery present in the lyrics, and Samuel’s guitar playing is gentle as well as complicated.

9. Sleepy Girl Blues:
This is a HARD acoustic blues - shouted vocal, flaying the guitar strings while injecting slide into the mix, keeping time with a foot stomp. Samuel’s Delta influences are showing on this one. Nice job!

10. Baby-Doll:
This song is a rag, with the jaunty syncopated feel of that style. Samuel’s guitar technique can be heard very well here. This track is another winner.

11. Runnin’ from My Baby’s Gun, Whilst Previously Watchin’ Butterflies From My Front Porch:
We now have a winner in the longest song title sweepstakes! Shoot, I had to take a break while typing it up. The listener is treated to Mr. James’ slide playing here. He starts off nice and slow, using the slide to build mood and effect. A couple minutes into the song things change up, and he shifts his playing into overdrive, working the slide hard. This is an instrumental tour-de-force.

12. Love & Mumbly-Peg:
This is another of Samuel’s gentle humorous-sounding story songs, which of course masks a deeper meaning behind the lyrics. This is a very nice song, one which I think you’ll all enjoy.

13. The Sad Ballad Of Ol’ Willie Chan:
This is the set-ender. Samuel takes you back into a slide-driven Delta blues, shouting the story of mistreated railroad Coolie. Ol’ Willie and the other Coolies do indeed gain a final measure of retribution…this song could be subtitled “and Robber-Baron Hell”. I like this one a lot, as the slide really drives the song home. This tune is a great end to a great CD.

The Verdict:
Two thumbs up for the new CD from Samuel James! This young man is an amazing talent. After listening to this album it’s very difficult to imagine that this is his big label debut. Samuel is one of those talents that comes along and breathes new life into older forms of music, taking from the old and adding his own “new” to it, all the while retaining the viability of the music. If you enjoy solo acoustic blues this CD is for you. You’ll hear pre-war Delta influences, songster stylings such as John Hurt’s music, Piedmont-style rags, and plenty of insightful and humorous wordplay. The old STLBluesometer is topping out on this one folks, as I can give this an absolutely deserved 5.0. Buy it!!

Lee Howland, aka "East Side Slim"
The STLBluesometer

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