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August 1997

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Steve James
Art and Grit

Art and GritEvery so often, I am fortunate to discover a disc that not only offers fine music, but also communicates the sheer joy experienced by the musicians in making the disc. Steve James' new disc, Art and Grit is such a find. It is a rollicking romp through numerous styles of acoustic blues.

Mr. James's voice is a good instrument for the traditional roadhouse blues style that he favors; not pretty, but rough-edged, gritty and earnest. But it is the excellent instrumental work that distinguishes and propels this disc to the Promised Land. Indeed, it often seems as though the voice accompanies the instrumental arrangements rather than vice versa. Two of the sixteen cuts are instrumental gems, that demonstrate the skillful playing and cleverness of arrangements that permeate the disc.

Mr. James is a wiz at the slide guitar and mandolin, and calls upon a wide variety of worthy collaborators such as: Ann Rabson (pianist for Saffire--Uppity Blues Women), Cindy Cashdollar (dobroist and member of Asleep at the Wheel), Gary Primich (harp), Danny Barnes (guitar), and Mark Rubin (bass and tuba). Messrs. Barnes and Rubin are also member of the Bad Livers, whose recent newgrass release, Hogs on the Highway, is highly recommended for those who also appreciate that musical style. Some of the instrumental collaborations are intimate, an excellent example being the unusual but highly evocative pairing of mandolin and piano on "Blues Widow."

More often James puts together a larger ensemble, and when he does the rhythms are electrifying in an acoustic sort of way. The songs are a mixture of original and traditional numbers (the latter usually with inventive arrangements by Mr. James). Although mostly uptempo in feel, the disc offers a felicitous sequence of style, mood, instrumentation and tempo. The result is ever-evolving and never monotonous. This is yet another fine release from a label that gives blues lovers a cornucopia of new and interesting discs. As the label name suggests, it is a fine discover indeed.

--- Bill Jacobs

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