After establishing a name for himself as a master of acoustic blues, first solo and then in a long-time partnership with Ben Hernandez, Nathan James decided it was time to go back to the drawing board and start over. The drawing board not being available, he actually went to a washboard, and figured out a way of turning that into the base of a new amplified guitar he calls the Washtar Giboard.
Crank up the volume on the amp, and this thing puts out a raw blast of jumping electricity that immediately sends shivers up and down the listener’s body. And, he can scratch out rhythms on the washboard part while he plays chords or strangles single-note lines with his deft finger-picking. Let’s jump back a bit. James discovered the blues and the guitar when he was 13, and became adept enough by the age of 19 to be recruited into the band of James Harman. His boss, who now only plays a handful of festival gigs annually, contributed a ringing endorsement to Nathan’s web page: "Of the 65 or so great guitar players I’ve had in my band, since the early 1960s, Nathan James is easily the A#1 hands-down stand-out!"
Nathan James' What You Make Of It
Stepping outside the electric world of Harman’s band, James began rigorously touring as a solo acoustic act, exploring all the ins and outs of the Delta and Piedmont styles. His partnership with Hernandez won even more acclaim, and it seemed likely they could keep a comfortable career going for a long time to come. But James wanted a band, and he wanted to conjure up this new sound, and he wanted it loud, and he wanted it raucous. So, Washtar, Bari-tar and three-stringed Tri-tar in hand, he teamed up with young veterans Troy Sandow (bass and harmonica) and Marty Dodson (drums) to form Nathan James & the Rhythm Scratchers. To judge by their first album together, What You Make Of It, this band is among the most exciting blues outfits working these days.
The only thing the new record has in common with James’ acoustic work is the musical precision and emotional resonance he brings to the table. This new sound is loud and explosive, a full-on rumbling, menacing, and dynamic wail of beautiful tone. The album opener, “Chosen Kind,” sets us right inside waves of sound, with James scratching out a rhythm that the drums pick up quickly. His powerhouse riff on the Tri-tar gives room for Sandow’s harp to cry and shout. It’s astounding to hear the way these three musicians interact, give each other space and yet push each other to new heights of expression. And James sings with passion and rhythmic invention to match, as he tells a woman she is just his type, just his chosen kind.
Black Snakin' Jiver
“What You Make Of It” slows things down to a swampy crawl at the beginning, then double-times for the verse. Back and forth the rhythms go, and James croons his self-help advice, “you’ve got to play your best hand.” His guitar solo here plucks right into the swamp groove, but takes the familiar style into new melodic places. “Black Snakin’ Jiver” is an old Blind Boy Fuller song that showcases James’ love of kazoo, and his band's ability to imagine what an amplified band in 1935 might have sounded like. Dodson is particularly amazing with his drums on this infectious cut.
James takes Jimmy McCracklin’s “Later On” to a darker place with his baritone washtar and some minor-key harmonies on the vocals. Apparently, this song was just done as a run-through to get sound levels correct, but they liked the performance enough to keep it on the record. Good call. This seems as good a chance as any to mention that all the songs on this record were recorded live in the studio with the musicians not even wearing headphones. That’s why the playing sounds so interactive, and why the instruments bleed into each other so neatly.
Make It On Your Own
“Get To the Country” starts off quiet and just takes off with each verse adding new rhythmic invention, thicker and thicker harp, and more intensity in the vocals. “Make It On Your Own” is a beautiful tribute to a musician friend of James, Steve White. It’s not a mournful song; it’s a loving evocation of life’s possibilities. Sandow plays both a beautiful bass line and Slim Harpo-inspired harmonica here. James Harman stops by for a hilarious and partially improvised stomper called “Rhino Horn,” a tale of debauchery and sexual aids. You can hear the close feeling between his vocals and James’ guitar playing.
Just to remind us he can finger-pick on an acoustic, James offers a lovely song called “Pretty Baby Don’t Be Late,” in which the band quietly supports him. But the electric is back for a powerhouse instrumental called “Blues Headache” which really showcases Sandow’s harp playing. “Pain Inside Waltz” mixes up a Cajun-inspired tune with soulful guitar lines to absolutely riveting effect.
A cover of an obscure soul song by Bobby Patterson, “I’m A Slave To You” offers a chance for James and company to show yet another style they’ve mastered. Augmented by tenor and baritone sax, the band nails that early 1960s soul style that can still get feet to moving. In fact, James wrote his own song in this style, “First And The Most,” which could easily have been released on an early Stax 45 without anyone blinking an eye. His singing fits the style perfectly, too. Another trip back to a powerhouse blues for “You Led Me On,” and an enjoyable novelty instrumental called “Tri-Tar Shuffle Twist” which moves from a shuffle to a twist approach, and the album is over. The urge is to immediately start back to the beginning.
Steve's Bottom Line
After fourteen songs in seven or eight different styles, Nathan James & the Rhythm Scratchers have completely erased any previous work associated with the man. James has moved onward and into the future with this band, What You Make Of It offering simply irresistible blues. (Delta Groove Music, released May 20, 2012)
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