It’s only to be expected that a blues singer who was born in Maine and records for a Canadian label would stand the music on its head, but that’s what Samuel James does most entertainingly on his two recent discs: Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy and his new one, For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen. James is a superb fingerstyle guitarist and harp player, but for me the biggest selling point is the antic way he twists and remolds blues forms, acknowledging the past but using it very much to his own purposes.
Here’s James playing “Baby-Doll” from the first record:
James has crafted himself a trickster stage persona — imagine a halfway point between Keb Mo and Flavor Flav — and his songs are usually in storytelling mode. Two recurring characters, Big Black Ben and Sugar Smallhouse, liven things up in the new release. Ben tricks a bunch of Klansmen into shooting each other instead of him, while Smallhouse shows up at his girlfriend’s place on Valentine’s Day with nothing but excuses: I bought you a puppy but it fell down a well, I bought you a rose but I just planted it and it needs time to grow, etc. If you’re tired of overly reverential blues (or punishingly bombastic guitar solos) then Samuel James will be a breath of fresh air.