In a year filled with many changes for this writer, there remains one constant: The Blues. No matter how daunting or joyful that this world can be; the Blues always provides the most profound soundtrack for the variables of this life.
Therefore, I was truly excited to find out that the Charlotte Blues Society was bringing in one of my favorite contemporary Bluesmen in for the August 5th Blues Sunday at The Rabbit Hole namely, James Armstrong. I first heard James Armstrong in January 2000 when I purchased his 1998 CD, “Dark Night.”
I was coming out of a rather noir period in the aftermath of my brother’s 1996 suicide. Armstrong’s Dark Night CD became the soundtrack of my own healing. The refrain in the title track became a litany for me in those early days of 2000:
“It’s a dark night, it’s a dark night, but I can still see the light…..”
Blues, at it’s best, is a music of truth and healing. James Armstrong embodies those principles in his story, his warm singing voice and succinct guitar playing. On June 28th, I had the privilege of doing a phone interview with James Armstrong for the Charlotte Blues Society’s BlueSletter.
Rather than do a standard Q&A interview I decided to have a conversation about James’ background, his early career and the redemptive power of the Blues and love.
First of all, I had to thank James for the “Dark Night” album and told him the story previously referenced above. James expressed his thanks and in the course of the interview I discovered James to be a warm, humble and considerate human being.
James Armstrong was born in Los Angeles on April 22, 1957. James was raised by his Father, also named James Armstrong, who was a skilled Jazz guitarist. Being a single parent James Armstrong Sr. had to seek work outside of music and demonstrated unconditional love to his son. By the time he was five James was playing drums aptly and he would play duets with his Father. He soon gravitated towards playing the saxophone and took lessons, learning basic theory. His saxophone teacher would have him play in the corner to get his “sound.” On his Father’s record player were artists such as Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole, who James’ father knew quite well.
While still quite young James one day picked up one of his Father’s guitars and played a musical passage. It made sense. He played another passage that made further sense. The path was set. Soon James had his own, sort of off brand guitar. Eventually, that progressed to a 1964 Fender Stratocaster. His Father gave his son music theory every day after school.
Because of Father’s connections to the musical community, James met guitarists such as Kenny Burrell and Irving Ashby, who played guitar with Nat King Cole. I encourage my younger readers to consider listening to Burrell and Ashby. A musical education is forever.
James developed a strong passion for deep Blues and for the great Jimi Hendrix and became a very skilled guitarist and singer. By the time he was 17, James was on the road with an Elvis Presley interpreter. In his early 20’s he was the youngest member of Bluesman Smokey Wilson’s band.
In the 1980’s James was one of the founding members of the Blues-Rock band, Mama Roo. Mama Roo got a record deal with Crescendo records and their album was produced by Stevie Wonder Producer, Robert Margouleff. Eventually, Mama Roo and it’s members went their separate ways. In the 1990’s, James Armstrong was heard by HighTone Records Owner/Producer, Bruce Bromberg. Bromberg had produced other artists such as Robert Cray & Joe Louis Walker. Bromberg was impressed by James’ guitar work and vocals, but advised him to lose the “Jimi Hendrix” influence.
Their partnership lead to the first James Armstrong release on HighTone, “Sleeping with a Stranger, in October 1995. In April 1997, as James was preparing to tour, he and his son, James, were victims of a home invasion. His left arm and hand were stabbed to the point that it was thought he would not play again. Through the support of friends and the Blues World, James started to heal. James slowly recovered his dexterity, in part, by playing slide guitar.
James released his second HighTone album, “Dark Night,” in 1998. Two of his friends, Doug Macleod and Joe Louis Walker, assisted on guitars. One of the album tracks, “Bank of Love,” was featured in the soundtracks for the films, “Hear No Evil and The Florentine.”
James Armstrong is a truly deep and real life-spiritual Bluesman. He has continued to recover, tour and record. In 2001, James received two W.C Handy Award nominations. One was for Contemporary Blues Guitarist and one for the song, “Pennies and Picks,” from the 2000 album, “Got it Goin’ On.” Another song from that album, “2 Sides,” was featured in the soundtrack for the film, “Speechless.”
James had a break from recording from 2000 to 2011, coming out with stunning, “Blues at the Border.”
That was released on the Johnny Rawls label, Catfood Records. That release was followed by 2014’s “Guitar Angels.” In 2016, James formed his own Guitar Angels records label and released the self-produced work, “Mary-Jo Curry.”
Aided by his partner and supporter, Alice Goodrich, James Armstrong now lives in Illinois. His most recent release was 2017’s Catfood records release, “Blues Been Good To Me.” James told me that he would like to do an album of all traditional Blues. I urge my readers to check out James at his website, jarmblues.com and on YouTube. You will hear and see at these sites, and at his August 5th performance at Charlotte’s The Rabbit Hole, one of America’s most dynamic and deepest Bluesmen. A true survivor who can still see the light.
Check out this great article from Our State Magazine here
Stompin for Tommy castro article
With his fiery guitar and lap steel playing, his trailblazing, instantly memorable songs and gritty, unvarnished vocals, Selwyn Birchwood is among the most extraordinary young stars in the blues. His deep familiarity with blues tradition allows him to bust the genre wide open, adding new sounds, colors and textuers, all delivered with a revival tent preacher's fervor and a natural storyteller's charisma. Since the 2014 release of his Alligator Records debut, Don't Call No Ambulance, Birchwood's meteoric rise from playing small Florida clubs to headlining international festival stages to nothing short of phenomenal, as he continues to set the contemporary blues world on fire. The album received the Blues Music Award and Living Blues Critics' Award for Best Debut Album Of 2014, and he won the 2015 Blues Blast Rising Star Award. Selwyn and his band have crisscrossed the U.S. and Europe repeatedly, delivering unforgettable live performances. With his new album, Pick Your Poison, Birchwood, along with his band-saxophonist Regi Oliver, bassist Huff Wright and drummer Courney "Big Love" Girlie-takes a major step forward, crafing visionary blues for a new generation of forward-looking fans.
Blues on the Air Around the World
Check out the links on these artists our members have seen and highly recommend!
Kaz Hawkins Band
Ireland's Kaz Hawkins shares some of her favorite artists in two shows airing on the BBC.
The members of Charlotte Blues Society saw some great talent in Memphis in early 2017 during the IBC. One of those bands "LIMELIGHT" the first ever Melbourne Australia youth band to play at the IBC. They were: Charlie Bedford, Hayden Powell, Cameron Powell & Harvey Constable. Their EP "Take One" was released in 2016. In mid 2017, Charlie Bedford left Limelight to work on solo projects, and returns to Memphis and the IBC in 2018. The Powell Brothers, Hayden & Cameron continue with Harvey Constable as a strong trio. We look for exciting things in the future from these artists in their separate projects.
Limelight ( From Australia)
Dave Warmerdam (solo duo with Robbert Fossen) Dutch Blues Foundation Photo:Rick Kite
Robbert Fossen & Dave Warmerdam
Dave Warmerdam and Robbert Fossen competed in the Solo/Duo Competition representing Dutch Blues Foundation at the IBC in 2017 in Memphis. Warmerdam, 16 on piano, joined Fossen, winner of the 2014 Dutch Blues Award as best vocalist. 2017 was Fossen's second trip to the IBC, performing in 2013 where he made it to the finals as a duo and the first Dutch act ever. Fossen and Warmerdam's performance that got them to Memphis is here
Top 10 Modern Blues Guitarists
When Stevie Ray Vaughan passed away in 1990, he left a void in the world of young blues musicians. Over the past twenty years we have seen the emergence of many talented blues guitarists. Here are ten of the most influential blues guitarists to come along over the past couple of decades. Do you agree with our choices? Voice your opinion in the comments section.
1. Joe Bonamassa
Out of all the people on this list, Joe Bonamassa is probably the most successful modern blues guitarist in the past twenty years. Bonamassa has been playing the blues since he was a little kid, catching the attention of B.B. King when he was only 12 years old. Joe and producer Kevin Shirley have used the young guitarist's inspired blues guitar playing as a springboard to incorporate other genres as well, most notably heavy rock music, like the 2009 hit “The Ballad of John Henry.” When Joe performs live, his two most impressive blues numbers include the Jeff Beck cover “Blues Deluxe” as well as the acoustic “Woke Up Dreaming” which tend to go on for up to ten minutes with just Bonamassa and his guitar alone on stage.
Joe Bonamassa covering Gary Moore's “Midnight Blues” on his Gibson Les Paul.
2. John Mayer
Who would have thought that John Mayer would turn out to be such a blues aficionado when he first appeared on the music scene in 2001 with his first album Room For Squares? Many music fans dismissed Mayer as yet another singer-songwriter catering to broken hearted teenagers. But as Mayer's career progressed it became obvious that he was actually a blues man at heart, especially from his appearance at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004 where he preceded his song “City Love” with a very inspired four minute blues intro built around Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” riff. Speaking of Hendrix, Mayer approaches the blues in the same way as the late guitarist did, fretting the bottom note of barre chords with his thumb, and embellishing the chords like Hendrix on “Little Wing.” If you're not familiar with Mayer's blues antics, a good place to start is the John Mayer Trio album Try! from 2005, where Mayer play alongside bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan.
3. Jack White
If there ever was a modern blues purist, Jack White is it. White uses a minimum of effects, and goes the vintage route most of the time. His setup is little more than a guitar plugged straight in to an amp, aside from an occasional fuzz pedal or some pitch shifters that he would use a lot in his work with The White Stripes. It might not be obvious on the surface, but The White Stripes were essentially a blues band. On their first album they covered the Robert Johnson penned “Stop Breaking Down” as well as the folksong “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Once you catch on to their blues roots, it becomes obvious that it defines everything The White Stripes did, and all that Jack White has done since. For example, listen to the excellent “Will There Be Enough Water?” from Horehound, the first album by The Dead Weather.
4. Eric Gales
Out of the guitarists on this list Eric Gales is the one who first made a name for himself in the early ‘90s. What is perhaps most interesting about Gales is that he is a right-handed guitar player who plays guitar as a lefty. Gales' brother is left handed, and so he simply taught Eric to play the same way. Gales play a right-handed guitar that he flips over so that the thick strings are on the bottom and the high strings on top.
5. Dan Auerbach
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney from The Black Keys have taken the blues to a new level. The duo started out playing straight ahead blues on their first three recordings, as well as the Chulahoma EP, but have since progressed to incorporate the blues within a more modern setting. Perhaps the biggest contribution of The Black Keys is that they introduce their young fans to the blues tradition that initially inspired The Black Keys themselves.
6. Davy Knowles
At only 25 years old, blues guitarist and singer Davy Knowles from the Isle of Man has already released two albums. The latest of which, Coming up For Air, was produced by Peter Frampton. Davy has toured all over the States, originally as part of the trio Back Door Slam. He gained many fans as the opening act for Chickenfoot on their 2009 US tour. Davy plays the blues with the sincerity of someone twice his age, just listen to his cover of the Blind Joe Reynolds song "Outside Woman Blues" from his first album Roll Away, and the song "Riverbed" from Coming Up For Air.
7. Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Shepherd released his first album Ledbetter Heights in 1995 when he was only 18 years old. Aside from a foray in to heavy rock territory with The Place You’re In in 2004, Shepherd has stayed true to the blues. In 2007 he released a CD/DVD combo entitled 10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads on which he traveled the deep south seeking out old grandmasters of the blues and recording with them. Recommended listening: Kenny Wayne Shepherd covered Jimi Hendrix’s "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and released it as an all instrumental B-side to "Blue on Black" in 1997. This hybrid between Hendrix's version and Stevie Ray Vaughan's cover clearly illustrate who Shepherd's two main influences are.
8. Derek Trucks
While not simply just a blues guitarist, Derek Trucks still belong on this list since much of his music is deeply rooted in the blues. Trucks cites blues greats such as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker among his influences. In 2007 Trucks was invited to perform on Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival where he played alongside Johnny Winter, a great pairing since both are great slide guitar players in their own right.
9. Jonny Lang
Jonny Lang rose to fame around the same time as Kenny Wayne Shepherd. His 1997 sophomore album Lie To Me was a huge hit for Lang, when he was only 16 years old. It gave him the opportunity to tour with Aerosmith on their Nine Lives tour. Aside from his very skilled vibrato-tinged guitar playing, what was most notable about Lang at the time was his mature voice that sounded more like a man in his forties than that of a teenager. Lang carried on the blues tradition on his third album Wander This World, with the excellent opening track “Still Rainin',” but has since drifted more towards soul and gospel music.
10. Ben Harper
Just like with Derek Trucks, Ben Harper's style of music span many different genres, with blues being one of the underlying inspirations. Although he's a multi-instrumentalist, Harper's signature instrument is playing acoustic slide guitar. Just listen to songs like “Homeless Child,” “Whipping Boy,” and “I Want To Be Ready” for a taste of how Harper incorporates the blues in his music.
The Charlotte Blues Society P.O. Box 32752 Charlotte, NC 28232 Copyright 2018