T.J. Sullivan,
The Adventures of Thelonious James
(self-produced, 2004)

Like many people, I started listening to the blues many years ago. It was very easy to pick up Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and other greats. After discovering Chicago blues, I also learned to appreciate the earlier acoustic blues from the Delta. This led to a discovery of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Mississippi Fred McDowell, among others.

The blues has become a staple in my musical style. Sometimes it is pure blues and other times it is diluted forms translated into other styles. It is also music that I find myself returning to over and over. But I am also skeptical about many newer artists who define themselves as blues artists. Because of the surface simplicity of the music, anyone can appropriate the chords. Often I listen to a blues album and think it wouldn't be bad for a bar band on a Friday night, but it's not interesting listening otherwise. They tend to rely on songs that all sound alike but have a big backbeat. There is little in the way of nuance.

This skepticism is why I was happily surprised with The Adventures of Thelonious James by T.J. Sullivan. This self-produced disc manages to execute both acoustic and electric blues with some nice mandolin and dobro touches added in. Phil Bloch plays drums and percussion, and Mark "Pocket" Goldberg adds upright and electric bass. I was impressed with his ability to keep the sound fresh throughout the disc, which manages to come together neatly as an album.

The Adventures of Thelonious James is put together almost like a continuous story. It opens up with "Momma's Got a New Tattoo," which starts off with some acoustic guitar. Sullivan also has a good voice for delivering the blues: very heartfelt and husky. The tattoo doesn't seem like a typical motif for the blues but I can conjure up many pretty young women frequenting blues bars with nice artwork on their bodies.

I also like the way Sullivan is able to conjure up a great country-blues feel. I can picture him sitting on a porch playing a guitar. This music holds up beyond just a three-chord band playing in a local bar. The songs are strong and deal with timeless themes, like "Through Drunken Eyes" and "Drinking the Blues." I think most people with an affinity for the blues have been there before.

There are also the songs of amour. "Baby I Know" and "Woman Looking for a Man" help us understand the complexities of love. "Who Do You Think You're Foolin'" has a nice Little Milton feel to it, although Sullivan textures the song with mandolin. "Fat Kats/Deep Pockets" deals with the problems of economy. This is a bit of social commentary on the state of the union. "In These Blues" is also a fine song about the blues.

The album consists of 10 songs, all written by Sullivan. "In These Blues" was co-written with Oscar Jordan.

Many of the themes are standard for the blues, but Sullivan manages to put his own stamp on them. He also displays a sense of humor in the songs, a quality that helps make the blues more powerful. The great ones should be able to throw out a joke even in the face of depression or the blues. This is a fine disc for fans of contemporary blues still steeped in tradition.

- Rambles
written by George Schaefer
published 27 November 2004