A former Intel executive, Fred Litwin left the corporate life for the indie-label grind in 2000, founding NorthernBlues Music after having been an investor in the Canadian folk label Borealis. “I want this company to add substantially to the blues repertoire,” he writes on the label’s site, “and not just come out with the ‘same old, same old.’”
You’ve got to admire his effort, considering even classical music makes most modern blues look stale. Currently, NorthernBlues has 24 artists, of which you’ve maybe heard of Toni Lyn Washington and Watermelon Slim. The latter had his album, The Wheel Man, named one of the best 10 albums of 2007 by Gibson Guitars. Okay, you might know Eddie Turner, too.
And if you pay attention to local music at all, you probably know Samuel James. I guess you could openly wonder whether music that was contemporary circa 1932 does in fact constitute the same old, same old, but that’s unfair. It’s possible to make the old new again, and James infuses his brand of Delta-based, acoustic guitar-and-a-microphone blues with just enough swagger and grit to avoid becoming one of those portraits done by caricature artists that make you cringe with embarrassment when you see the result.
NorthernBlues clearly took a cotton to James, hooked him up with producer David Travers-Smith (Ani DiFranco), and will this month release Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy, a better-produced update of James’s sound on Return of Sugar Smallhouse, which took not a small portion of Portland by storm last year. A few songs reappear, including “Big Black Ben” and “The ‘Here Comes Nina’ Country Rag-Time Surprise,” but they aren’t merely rehashings. “Nina,” you’ll hear, is grittier and meaner, even more in line with the George-and-Weezy sentiment of “Here she come, now she countin’ to 10/Looks like I forgot to do those dishes again.”
Once again, however, the only accompaniment James gets is from his tapping foot, which often adds a great deal to his performance, a grounding influence and a reminder that we’re in the here and now. You first hear it on “Sunrise Blues,” where it holds together a sloppy-in-a-good-way ramble on a resonator in love with low notes. On “Baby Doll,” it sets up a mid-tempo pace you could dream to, before the killer betrayal that comes in at the two-minute mark, when the tune slows to a half-time wail.
|Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy | Released by Samuel James | with Sontiago + dilly dilly + D. Gross + Railroad Wil + Blinky McGhee + Moses Atwood + Meantone + Joe Fletcher + Myron Samuels + Blind Billy Black + Country Don from Taiwan + Maiah Connell + Papa James | at SPACE, in Portland | March 8|
Throughout the disc, James displays a great feel for the unexpected that’s critically important for the listener’s enjoyment. If he let us get too comfortable, it might be hard to find his old-timey sound memorable, but with subtle touches like the three-chord bounce touched off by a sour note that finishes “Baby Doll,” we’re forced to listen ever more closely, worried we might miss the next pleasant surprise.