James Armstrong,
Guitar Angels
(Catfood, 2014)

James Armstrong distinguishes himself from most contemporary bluesmen in several ways. The most immediately notable is that he traffics in blues, not in blues-rock, the lingua franca of much of the genre in its 21st-century form, dominated as it is by white ex- or would-be rockers.

Armstrong plays fluid, snaky guitar lines and sings in a conversational voice. That makes Guitar Angels a lot more like B.B. King (perhaps even more so the lamentably overlooked Jimmy Johnson) than like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I suspect that much of its audience these days embraces blues more as a form of rooted rock than as blues as such, which leads to the dismal thought that blues, like country, may be heading toward extinction, at least in practice if not in name.

In any event, if you want to hear blues when you hear blues, Armstrong is one destination. Melody abounds, bombast is scarce, and an amiably languid modesty triumphs. Most of the cuts are Armstrong originals, with a contemporary spin on genre themes. There is also an r&b-inflected reading of Glenn Frey's "Take It to the Limit," which Armstrong renders in a version more interesting than the original, which wasn't.

The apparently biographical "Movin' to Nashville" is in the tradition of -- literally -- moving blues, going all the way back to Jim Jackson's 1927 classic "Kansas City Blues" (aka "Going to Move to Kansas City"). "Nashville" is grittier than the other cuts, perhaps Armstrong's one nod to something like the sounds of pre-1950s, rural-tinged blues. Mostly, Guitar Angels builds around a small guitar-dominated ensemble, fattened sometimes by a horn section and even strings. Happily there's a lot more r&b -- Armstrong's vocals are in the easygoing soul tradition -- in these blues than rock.

The number of African-American artists performing blues these days isn't exactly overwhelming. Some have returned to the early folk blues, either to revive it (Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis) or to use it as a point of departure (Otis Taylor, Corey Harris). A few have returned to the mid-century Chicago style (Dave Riley, Larry "Mud" Morganfield). Armstrong has chosen to immerse himself in an approach to blues that was and is nearly entirely citified, if largely marginalized by other, post-blues forms of black popular music. The flame he keeps burns brightly in his steady hands.

music review by
Jerome Clark

10 May 2014

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