East Side Slim
Nathan James – I Don't Know It – Sacred Cat Recordings, 2009
What we have here is one excellent CD from Nathan James, already a blues veteran of over 12 years even though he has just barely crested 30 years of age. Nathan is a gifted, soulful singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (guitars both electric and acoustic, mandolin, harmonica, customized suitcase drum set, banjo and even kazoo!) At this point in his young career Nathan has several fine recordings in circulation under his name, as well as with like-minded musical partners, including Ben Hernandez and Carl Sonny Leyland. As if that weren't enough, he can also be found playing guitar on several fine James Harman albums. This current CD, "I Don't Know It", was recorded, mixed and mastered by Nathan, and the artwork was also created by him. About the only thing he didn't do was to take the photographs – of himself that is.
For those of you not familiar with Nathan James, a little history is in order. He grew up in small-town California, falling in love with the guitar and blues at about the same time when he was 13 years old. Choosing to channel his energies in a positive direction (rather than running around getting in all sorts of trouble), he dove into the guitar and became so proficient that by 18 years old (and only a month past graduating from high school) he was playing professionally in the band of San Diego-area harp man Billy Watson. In short order (measured in months rather than years) he had also played in bands with Johnny Dyer and Jamie Wood. At age 19 a musical gift was bestowed on Nathan; he was tapped by James Harman to join his band and tour internationally – by my calculations this would have all occurred somewhere around 1998. Nathan proceeded to tour hard with the James Harman band for the next 3 1/2 years.
During a break from touring with Harman's band, Nathan decided to jump-start his solo career, all at the ripe old age of 22. As an aside, Nathan was (and is) Harman's guitar player of choice and plays with the man to this day. In fact, if the following paraphrased information is accurate (thank you to The Blindman's Blues Forum, Oct 2009) Harman has stated in conversation that Nathan was the best guitar player he has ever worked with. If you are familiar with the career of James Harman, then you know he has employed and played with phenomenal guitar players over the years, including Hollywood Fats, Kid Ramos, Junior Watson and Kirk Fletcher.
Nathan, in a continuation and growth of his solo acoustic work, hooked up with harp player/singer Ben Hernandez around 2002. They released a couple of well-received albums while working together, and more impressively, the duo won 1st place in the solo/duo category of the International Blues Challenge in 2007. Unfortunately, Ben and Nathan aren't currently working as a duo. On a brighter and current note, while not working with Harman or performing solo, he is working with his own 3-piece band, which features fellow multi-instrumentalist Troy Sandow. This band combines the sophistication of such acoustic artists as Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Blake with the uptown electric sounds of such artists as Johnny Guitar Watson and B.B. King.
(Thanks go out to the following sources of information used in the paragraphs above: to Nathan James' bio on his website, to the San Diego Reader, and to The Blindman's Blues Forum.)
The Songs: (songs by Nathan James unless otherwise specified)
1. No Baby Don't
--This fine cut starts things off in a back-porch funky-rhythm sounding-oh–so-good manner. While it sounds as if there's a 3-piece playing, it's actually Nathan playing guitar, upright bass and drums.
2. Walk With Your Maker
--Nathan shows off his skills on Dobro (or National Steel) here, pickin' and singin' for our listening pleasure. This is also a nice showcase for his vocals. Fine indeed!
3. Heart Desire
--This one is a warm, jaunty, acoustically played love song, featuring an up-tempo rag-like influence in Nathan's guitar work. His singing talents are on full display here as well.
4. I Don't Know
--Basically the CD title track, this one harks back to the 1st cut on the album as it's a back-porch electric groover with all the instrumentation supplied by Nathan. There's also some nice harp blowing here but the credits missed who supplied that on this track; my guess is that's it Troy Sandow blowing harp here, accidently credited to track 5 instead of to track 4. This is one of those songs this is so infectious that it could go on for 20 minutes and you would still not be tired of it – sort of like the best of those Mississippi Hill Country groovers.
5. Too Long – (Mississippi Sheiks - traditional)
--Nathan and a buddy (Marty Dodson on drums) treat us to a Mississippi Sheiks cover here, played in loving tribute – as well as featuring some finger-tying banjo from Nathan. Don't worry banjo haters, as this sounds fantastic and there is guitar along for the ride as well.
6. My Last Nerve – (James Harman)
--How 'bout that, James Harman supplying a tune, as well as singin' and playin' some acoustic harp. The lyrics feature Harman's typical twists, turns and clever wordplay. Nathan lays down fine guitar and someone's stompin' a basic rhythm (possibly Nathan using his suitcase drum kit?) If you enjoy back porch blues, this tune is for you!
7. Easy Baby – (Sam Maghett, aka Magic Sam)
--This song is played in full West Side sound, with Nathan on electric guitar, upright bass from Troy Sandow, and the inimitable Carl Sonny Leyland (he's a monster, folks!) on piano. Nathan does a spectacular job capturing the required anguished vocal sound here, without sounding clownish or overblown. It's all played nice and slow, with that rhythm and feel that this song is all about (picture a couple doing a slow drag while wrapped around each other and you'll get the picture…)
8. Send You Back Home
--This song does a nice job of capturing the Bluebird Records sound of the mid-1930s. It's basically electric guitar, drums and a little harp (from Nathan) – simple (in theory) and sounding mighty fine.
9. Undecided Woman Blues
--It's as if Nathan wrote this about one of old East Side Slim's past relationships - too close for comfort baby… I guess that just goes to show why blues music resonates with people; it speaks to life events, good, bad, happy, sad – the human condition, such as it is. As for the sound here, it's hard, solo electric guitar picking with vocal accompaniment – this is one tough cut!
10. Wayfaring Stranger – (traditional)
--This tune is a beautiful old spiritual, beginning in a cappella fashion with Nathan and the harmony vocals of Olivia Pierson. After the intro, Nathan plays beautiful acoustic guitar, along with nice touches of mandolin, all with Ms. Pierson continuing to provide harmony vocals on the choruses.
11. Pain And Waiting
--Here we have an additional acoustically played song featuring a gentle, beautiful melody – think Mississippi John Hurt or Rev. Gary Davis - just Nathan playing his guitar (not even a vocal on this track.) This is the kind of song that can (does) bring tears of happiness to old East Side's eyes; gorgeous, simply gorgeous.
What a pleasant surprise this CD is. I purchased it from Nathan during a stint of shows he played in St. Louis during November 2010, and was completely blown away by how good this album is. This reviewer is well acquainted with Nathan's fine acoustic and electric work, and yet was still left with mouth agape after a single listen. It's not unusual for me to need several listens to get a real feel for a CD review, but that was not the case here. One time through (not even that much, actually) left me wanting to share with all of you how good this CD is. Find a source to purchase this CD from – please buy it, don't burn it; you will not be disappointed! OK, let's rate this bad boy – "I Don't Know It" from Nathan James is getting a STLBluesometer rating of 4.50; it really is that good!
For more information concerning Nathan James, see the following websites:
Howland - aka
"East Side Slim"