Samuel James brings acoustic blues to the stage
The musical stylings of Samuel James are difficult to describe, mostly because there’s no modern point of comparison.
"There’s nobody really doing anything like what I’m doing," he says. "It’s difficult for me to say, ‘If you like this, then you’ll like this.’ If you take Charlie Patton in 1928, Bob Newhart in 1957 and Little Richard in 1962 and put those together, that’s something kind of like what I do."
James is a Portland, Maine-based solo performer who travels the country showcasing his vocal talent and a unique set of instrumental skills. He is a master of fingerstyle and slide guitar techniques as well as banjo, harmonica and piano. A modern-day troubadour not yet out of his 20s, he is pioneering a style of entertainment that combines relics from the past with traces of the future.
In an attempt to define his music, people have classified James as a blues singer – a throwback to the songsters of the late 19th century. However, "I really only have a couple of blues songs," he says. "Most of my songs have to do with social lessons or funny characters and things like that. I have very few ‘I’m-so-sad-my-baby-left-me’ songs."
When someone stops to ask how James describes his own style, he sometimes asks whether they’ve seen an old-time or traditional entertainer perform. "Usually the answer is no," he says. So he tells them, "I play a rural form of traditional African-American music. But the show is much more than it. There are jokes and stories and dances. More than anything I’m an entertainer."
James’ musical lineage stretches back to the post-slavery era, during which his grandfather played guitar in contemporary blues styles that defined the period. His father was a professional pianist and trombone player and his mother, a dancer.
"[The musical inclination] was kind of unavoidable," he says. He learned to tap dance at five, played piano by eight and was touring the Northeastern circuit by 12.
Upon reaching the age of self-sufficiency, he started his artistic career as a painter but soon realized that his talent was better suited to music. "You can do things with music that you can only do with music," he says. "There’s that whole thing about all art wanting to be music, and I think that’s true."
He started touring professionally about three-and-a-half years ago and has recorded three CDs, the latest entitled "For Rosa, Maeve, and Noreen." His songs – many of which tell linear stories – have shifted from whimsical to more serious, he says.
He especially likes to address issues that have been neglected or pushed under the rug. One song, for example, tells the story of Ol’ Willy Chan, a Chinese migrant railroad worker.
"I wrote it because there were no songs in the American folk canon about Asians, and I thought that was really weird," he says. "I’m not trying to save the world, but it’d be nice to make people a little more patient."
James says it’s easy to find inspiration within the boundaries of the type of music he creates. The specific style of the acoustic blues songsters, he says, thrived and disappeared in a short period of time before the Great Depression.
Now that he is reinventing his own version of the genre, he has plenty to work with. "The style wasn’t around for very long, so it’s very easy to come up with things, change it and push it forward," he says.
A Samuel James performance consists of songs and stories set to innovative instrumentals. Parkites will have to opportunity to experience his M.O. on Friday, July 30, at The Egyptian Theatre. The show will start at 8 p.m. with doors opening at 7:30. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door and $20 for cabaret seating. Kids under 12 are $10 in advance at http://www.parkcityshows.com or $12 at the door.
He plans to bring a resonator guitar and flamenco guitar to the show and if there’s a piano, he’ll play that too, he says.
He doesn’t use a set list and improvises based on the audience’s reactions. "The good thing about being a solo act is I have no idea what I’m going to play," he says. "I get on stage and whatever comes into my head is what I play. That’s part of the charm of this for me I think – wandering out into the world and acting on a whim."
The show, he says, appeals to everyone from blues fans to kids who love to dance. People typically come into acoustic solo shows with a set of expectations, and James looks forward to deconstructing them. "Sometimes people expect me to strum along and sing Bob Dylan songs and maybe play Robert Johnson note for note, but that’s not what I do," he says. "I’m sort of immediately underestimated, which always works in my favor."
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