Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy - Reviews

 

 

Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy - Samuel James

"This is Samuel James' debut album and at 'a few years short of 30' some may say that he hasn't the experience to sing the blues. However, age is no matter when the music is relevant and, believe me, the music of multi-instrumentalist Samuel James is most certainly relevant. This set of 12 original songs confirms the arrival of a true story teller.

"
The 'Here Comes Nina' Country Rag-Time Surprise (the first of many long titles) highlights his dextrous fingers but his voice is different to what I expected from looking at him on the sleeve. There is nowhere to hide when it is just you and your guitar but James dishes up a spectacular opening. I'm back to the voice for Sunrise Blues. It definitely belies his years and this hypnotic Delta blues is of the highest order. Big Black Ben has slide guitar and the high standard is maintained. Sugar Smallhouse Heads For The Hills is exciting and vital as he turns his hand to the banjo. Wooooooo Rosa is an instrumental and James gives a master class in dobro slide playing. This is followed by the very short One-Eyed Katie, which continues his talent for keeping the listener interested.

"It could be very easy to become bored just listening to one man but his variety is exceptional.
Mid-December Blues - I get them, doesn't everyone - is a gentle country blues and is a great counterbalance to some of the other more in your face numbers. Sugar Smallhouse And The Legend Of The Wandering Siren Cactus (recurring theme?) has a virtually spoken lyric but it fits like an old shoe. Sleepy Girl Blues has a bit of pace injected on the slide and Baby Doll has some old style guitar picking. Both show what a true technician he is. He slows it down for the instrumental Runnin' From My Baby's Gun Whilst Previously Watchin' Butterflies From My Front Porch - easily the longest blues title I've ever come across. However, he builds it up so that it sounds like bees rather than butterflies at one point. Love & Mumbly-Peg shows that he does old style with real style and The Sad Ballad is a railroad song with his guitar taking the part of the train. Samuel James is already a true master and this is one of the best debut albums that I have ever heard."

-David Blue
NetRhythms.co.uk
July 2008 

 
   

"This is Samuel Jamesí debut album and at 'a few years short of 30' some may say that he hasnít the experience to sing the blues. However, age is no matter when the music is relevant and, believe me, the music of multi-instrumentalist Samuel James is most certainly relevant. This set of 12 original songs confirms the arrival of a true story teller. The Here Comes Nina Country Rag-Time Surprise (the first of many long titles) highlights his dextrous fingers but his voice is different to what I expected from looking at him on the sleeve. There is nowhere to hide when it is just you and your guitar but James dishes up a spectacular opening. Iím back to the voice for Sunrise Blues. It definitely belies his years and this hypnotic Delta blues is of the highest order. Big Black Ben has slide guitar and the high standard is maintained. Sugar Smallhouse Heads For The Hills is exciting and vital as he turns his hand to the banjo. Wooooooo Rosa is an instrumental and James gives a master class in dobro slide playing. This is followed by the very short One-Eyed Katie, which continues his talent for keeping the listener interested.

"It could be very easy to become bored just listening to one man but his variety is exceptional.
Mid-December Blues - I get them, doesnít everyone is a gentle country blues and is a great counterbalance to some of the other more in your face numbers. Sugar Smallhouse And The Legend Of The Wandering Siren Cactus (recurring theme?) has a virtually spoken lyric but it fits like an old shoe. Sleepy Girl Blues has a bit of pace injected on the slide and Baby Doll has some old style guitar picking. Both show what a true technician he is. He slows it down for the instrumental Runniní From My Babyís Gun Whilst Previously Watchiní Butterflies From My Front Porch - easily the longest blues title Iíve ever come across. However, he builds it up so that it sounds like bees rather than butterflies at one point. Love & Mumbly-Peg shows that he does old style with real style and The Sad Ballad is a railroad song with his guitar taking the part of the train.

"Samuel James is already a true master and this is one of the best debut albums that I have ever heard."

-David Blue
Blues Blues
June, 2008 

 
   

"Songs Famed for Sorrow & Joy (Northern Blues) is the debut CD of Samuel James, an exciting blues artist who is refreshingly different.

"James manages to combine the style of Robert Johnson with the New Millenium, and he does it so well. He plays some lovely slide guitar to accompany his vocals on tracks like
Big Black Ben and he picks some great guitar to go with tracks such as Sugar Smallhouse Heads For The Hills - at times he sounds like Bob Dylan might if he played pure blues.

"This man is a story-teller as well as a musician, and all 12 of the tracks on the album are his own and each tells a story in its own right (much like the early Bob Dylan material). Itís maybe not the sort of album that you fall in love with first time around - it needs a few listens to get to grips with what this man is doing. But once you get into it, youíre captured and just want to listen more and more.

"There are so many influences here, and Iíve probably missed a lot of them, but I would hazard a guess at Robert Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Son House, Bob Dylan, Bukka White, and Fred McDowell. The mix is compelling, addictive, and delicious - the instrumental
Wooooo Rosa just blew me away and I would personally buy this CD for this track on its own. That track and Running from my Babyís Gun are just so incredibly good - technically, musically, and every other way.

"There are a couple of tracks that werenít altogether to my taste, but the good tracks override these by such a large margin that itís irrelevant.

"Get this CD and listen to
Woooooo Rosa, Running From My Bayís Gun and The Sad Ballad Of Ol Willie Cahan - I can guarantee that youíll be pleased you listened."

-Terry Clear
Blues Bytes
May, 2008 

 
   

"There is a new bluesman on the horizon that is in the tradition of Robert Johnson. By that I mean he's a man with a guitar or banjo with percussion coming from his feet. His material is original with each song telling a story, but if you didn't know he was under 30 years old, you would swear the songs were written during the great depression. Don't take it for granted that he is from the Delta or Alabama (we do have a artist with the same name), he's from Portland, Maine and records on a Canadian label. His label knows great blues because they also have Watermelon Slim and Mem Shannon (both reviewed here) on their roster. The man that is going to take the blues into the 21st Century is Samuel James with this week's release Songs Famed For Sorrow and Joy (NothernBlues Music). He's does not have Keb Mo's laid back delivery; James is more aggressive. This album is going to take you back to the days when bluesmen were bluesmen and not electrified blues bands."

-Jerry Henry
Planet Weekly
April, 2008 

 
   

"Now, Samuel James is a whole other ball game. There's an echo of Mr. Hurt in the guitar playing that starts the album, The 'Here Comes Nina' Country-Ragtime Surprise, but then Samuel starts singing...and he's telling some kind of linear tale. It's like a short story. Beyond the standard 'squeeze my lemon' kind of blues lyric, this is more like O. Henry put to music by Son House. OK, that may be pushing it, but there's more to James' lyrics than repetition, and you should know that going in. Johnny Winter comments on his 'great voice and a great playing style! Traditional blues done with a hip twist.' Johnny should know.

"The title of the album might give you a clue.
Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy. What does that mean? Look at the titles. Sunrise Blues in which the narrator states 'I might kill myself!' In Big Black Ben over a bottleneck guitar (think Bukka White), Ben comes into town and sticks around with nothin' to lose. It doesn't work out. Sugar Smallhouse Heads For the Hills is another tale, this time over banjo accompaniment. James plays all the instruments himself and still finds over 50 people to thank! Wooooooo Rosa is a slide tune, One Eyed Katie a Hurt-style fingerpicked talking blues. Sugar Smallhouse returns with the Legend of the Wandering Cactus. As I said...it's like an anthology of short stories, and the blues is better for it.

"There's really nobody who I can compare Samuel James to. I know, I've already mentioned three or four predecessors, but he reminds me of a different person with every song, and yet he doesn't really sound like any of them! Something new under the sun? Perhaps, and yet, an archive of all that's come before."

-David Kidney
Greenman Review
April, 2008 

 
   

"Samuel James is a twenty something pre-war blues guitarist hailing from
Maine. Coming from a broken family and earning his keep by touring as a tap
dancer in his teens, and by busking on the streets of Ireland, he has a
relatively rich well of experience to draw upon for this, his second disc.

"With a voice that often recalls folk troubadour Greg Brown, James weaves
wild tales about colorful characters like
Big Black Ben who was always one
step ahead of the law,
One Eyed Katie, who "is all woman but no lady" and
Sugar Smallhouse who is just ahead of the ladies (and their jealous men!),
Sugar Smallhouse Heads for the Hills. He also takes a first person look at
heartbreak,
Mid-December Blues, and two timing women Love & Mumbly -Peg.

"Not content to suffer silently he embarks on a multiyear quest for a killer
cactus to give to his errant lady on
Sugar Smallhouse and the Legend of the
Wandering Siren Cactus
. With a buoyant guitar line segueing into an ominous,
angry backdrop you know this one isn't going to end nicely. On
Sunrise Blues he leaves matters of the flesh and heart behind and tells the chilling tale of a man waiting helplessly for the noose.

"When he's not weaving tales with his lyrics he lets his national resophonic
do the talking with dark, hypnotic strumming morphing into intricate
finger-picking on
Wooooooo Rosa and on the slicing, slide fueled, Runnin'
From My Baby's Gun, Whilst previously Watchin' Butterflies From My Front
Porch
which, along with The "Here Comes Nina" Country Rag Time Surprise and
Big Black Ben, appeared on his independent debut, The Return of Sugar
Smallhouse
.

"This is a terrific disc for those who enjoy an occasional foray into pre-war
finger-style blues but who can't really relate to the too often told tales
of picking cotton in the Delta heat."

-Mark Smith
Jazz & Blues Report
April, 2008 

 
   

"Itís refreshingly simple: perhaps in the age of super producers, musical collectives, and computer generated sound, weíve forgotten just how much music a man and his guitar can make. Samuel James hasnít.

"James is a old-school bluesman. With percussion left entirely to Jamesí tapping foot,
Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy is a tribute to a time when there were no albums, only sparse lyrics accompanied by sparse guitars. But no matter how scant the instrumentation, it never precludes a talented artist from getting the most out of what is there. In this case, whatís there is Jamesí rich, gruff voice that rumbles when it creeps through the lower range and cries as it races through its top range. Keeping those wandering vocals company is some tricky guitar picking, which gently dances for numbers like Love & Mumbly-Peg and screeches through the corners of tracks like Sleepy Girl Blues.

Jamesí focus is on storytelling and, not surprisingly for a blues album, most of the songs centre around some kind of woman troubles, explicated and mourned in a call-and-response structure. Nina in
The ĎHere Comes Ninaí Ragtime-Surprise seems particularly strict when it comes to chores; as James explains, Here comes Nina counting to ten / Looks like I forgot to do those dishes again / Here comes Nina with a pick and a spade / Talkiní íbout Ďif you donít do those dishes Iím goiní out to dig your grave.í? He doesnít seem to fare any better with One-Eyed Katie, who Is all woman, but not one bit lady / Just one eye is all she had/ She donít see so good, but she donít look so bad. Itís characters like Nina and Katie that give Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy its charm and originality, so if you want to know what happens to Olí Willie Chan, give it a listen, and Samuel James will tell you."

-Kathleen Bell
The Gateway, University of Alberta
April, 2008 

 
   

"Samuel James comes from a musical background. His grandfather played blues guitar in the early part of the 20th Century and his father was a professional piano player and trombone player. He learned to tap dance at five, to play piano at eight, and was touring the Northeastern U.S. by the age of 12. He fled to Ireland after a failed romance and learned to play harmonica while there. When he returned to the U.S., he learned to play guitar. Now in his late 20s, he's released one of the most remarkably authentic acoustic blues releases in a long time. Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy, his second release and first for NorthernBlues Music, is as close to a modern version of the pre-war blues as I've heard in a long time.

James wrote all 13 songs on the disc and performs them solo, accompanied only by his guitar or banjo. The highlights are many, and include "
Big Black Ben," who was one bad dude, "Wooooooo Rosa," a beautiful seven-minute instrumental, the manic "Sleepy Girl Blues," "Sugar Smallhouse Heads For the Hills," one of two songs featuring the Smallhouse character, and "One-Eyed Katie," who's "all woman, but not one bit lady."

The lively rag,
Baby-Doll, is another keeper, as is the intriguingly titled Runnin' From My Baby's Gun Whilst Previously Watchin' Butterflies From My Front Porch, which is actually another superb instrumental. Love & Mumbly-Peg and The Sad Ballad of Ol' Willie Chan, like the rest of James' "story songs," are fascinating narratives featuring fully fleshed-out character. You can actually feel their pain, their loss, and even their anger while you're listening.

Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy is as good as acoustic blues gets. Trust me when I say you'll be listening to it over and over again for a long time."

-Graham Clarke
Blues Bytes
March, 2008 

 
   

"Growing up black in white foster homes in Portland, Maine, was no picnic, Samuel James says. But he lists the toughest week of his life as the one he spent in the studio cranking out this one-man acoustic tour de force, his debut for Canada's NorthernBlues. It was worth the effort.

"James does not consider himself a bluesman so much as a songster and a storyteller, and the baker's dozen self-penned tunes here unfold in linear fashion. They're about tough guys (
Big Black Ben) and tough bosses (The Sad Ballad of Ol' Willie Chan), fast women (One-Eyed Katie) and unreliable women (Sleepy Girl Blues, Baby-Doll).

James is still in his 20s, but he already has a leg up on Keb' Mo' and other more established acoustic bluesmen. He's a terrific finger-picking guitarist and promising banjo player, with his feet serving as an ample percussion section."

-Jeff Johnson
Chicago Sun Times
March, 2008 

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"What does authentic blues mean?

"I picture a solitary, older gentleman on a Mississippi Delta porch playing a bottleneck guitar. While Samuel James is under 30, and apparently comes from Portland, Maine, he does handle all the instrumentation, singing and songwriting on his first album for Ontario-based Northern Blues. The term authentic blues, bandied in his advance material, sounds appropriate.

"Hitting stores on Tuesday,
Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy is a bakerís dozen of stripped down, lively and visceral blues tunes shaped by resophonic slide guitar and Jamesís half-spoken, half-sung voice.

"If the music of Alvin Youngblood Hart, Colin Linden, and Guy Davis is of interest, chances are Samuel Jamesís music will appeal.

"The song titles may be playful (the tension-dripping instrumental
Runniní from My Babyís Gun, Whilst Previously Watchiní Butterflies from My Front Porch, for instance) but the sentiments - either stated or implied - are conveyed with acoustic clarity.

"Most songs possess a depth of conviction, a sense of allegory, and even pathos that is balanced elsewhere by spirited brightness. With a unified sound that doesnít become tiresome,
Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy is a blues disc one will revisit frequently.

"Samuel James is as authentic as modern blues gets."

-Donald Teplyske
Red Deer Adovate, Alberta
March, 2008 

 
   

James born to belt out blues
His new disc has echoes of Robert Johnson


"They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

"Perhaps not.

"But sometimes it actually is a pretty good indication of what awaits you inside.

"Samuel James'
Songs Famed for Sorrow And Joy is a case in point. The photograph on the cover of this CD brings to mind vintage images of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson.

"And, lo and behold, if the music you find inside doesn't take you to the same sacred place on the Delta where the music of Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton and Bukka White was born, moulded and shaped from hard times and hard living.

"James, a gifted fingerstyle guitarist who also plays banjo, piano and harmonica, is very much a man cut from yesterday's cloth.

"His original material - this record consists entirely of original material - sounds at times like it could have been pulled from Alan Lomax's field recordings of pre-war blues at the Library of Congress. Johnny Winter, who was very much impressed with James when he heard him play, described his music as traditional blues with a hip twist.

"James, who spent much of his formative years in white foster homes in Maine, was born with the blues in his blood.

"His grandfather, who was born in 1890, was a blues guitarist. His father was also a musician playing both piano and trombone.

"The 20-something James began his own musical journey at the age of eight when he learned to play piano. By the age of 12 he was touring the Northeastern U.S. He started playing harmonica in his late teens and guitar shortly after.

"James plays strictly acoustic instruments and he plays alone, beating out his own percussion with both feet. Even if he didn't sing, he would be a joy to listen to.

"But he's got a lot to sing about. James is very much a storyteller whose songs are filled with interesting characters, situations, events and observations. He sings about love and relationships and working hard for a living, but he also sings about issues of social relevance like the face of racism today.

"He recorded
Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy in five days in Toronto using just two acoustic guitars, a banjo and nine microphones. The feel is that of an old-time blues recording, fortunately the production standards are much higher.

"Prime tracks on this NorthernBlues release, which was produced by David Travers-Smith (Ani DiFranco, Harry Manx) include
One-Eyed Katie, Mid-December Blues, Big Black Ben, Sleepy Girl Blues and Baby Doll.)

"If you have a thing for traditional blues, James deserves your attention.

"Rating: 4 stars out of 5."

-Doug Gallant
The Guardian, Prince Edward Island
March, 2008 

 
   

"Samuel James was born about 50 years too late. With his slide guitar, scratchy vocals and vintage songwriting, he sounds like Robert Johnson's little brother. Songs Famed For Sorrow and Joy is as old school and stripped down as blues music comes. No backup singers, no horn section and no drums outside of James's foot stomping - just a man, his guitar and the blues. Sorrow and Joy wonít win over anyone not in love with the blues already, but it should impress the hell out of those of us who are."

-Lewis Kelly
Vue Weekly, Edmonton
March, 2008 

 
   

"One canít help but tap oneís toes and bob oneís head along to Samuel Jamesí Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy. The engaging rhythm, tempo and Jamesí clear, yet growly and gruff voice all heighten the innate energy within the blues songs he performs. There is a balanced mix of fast, toe-to-whole-foot-tapping songs and slow, almost lazy blues. Wooooooo Rosa encapsulates the whole continuum of this range of tempos.

"
Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy gave me a pleasant vision of an impromptu group of musicians getting together and jamming on a country porch on a relaxed, sunny, summer afternoon. Everything Iíd expect out of a true blues album is on Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy: talk-singing storytelling, whistling, impressive finger-picking, affirmative grunting (Mmm hmm!), and, of course, the use of accelerando. But none of these tools are gimmicky; they are used in a precise and engaging way...

"... Now that spring has sprung, this album will help you melt those winter sorrows away and top you off with some summer joy!"

-Jacqueline Hogue
The Manitoban
March, 2008 

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"Maine native Samuel James is in a class of his own, grafting literate and often hilarious stories to pre-war b lues, and creating tunes with titles such as Runnin' From My Baby's Gun and Whilst Previously Watchin' Butteflies from My Front Porch.

"James accompanies himself with propulsive fingerstyle/slide acoustic guitar and banjo, pounding out the rhythm with his foot as he introduces us to folks like
One-Eyed Katie -- 'all woman but not bit lady' -- and a racist sheriff who winds up being cuckolded by a black man (Big Black Ben).

"Unconcerned about political correctness, he sometimes sounds, in his exuberance, like a young Bob Dylan."

-Patrick Langston
Ottawa Citizen
March, 2008 

 
   

"Aahhh, got him a resonator guitar, wicked do and soul patch, and a bucket-load of talent. Samuel James recorded this brilliantly original album up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which is a long way from the Delta, but somehow rings true to that domain, if you will. Either he is infected body and soul with the spirit of the blues or he is doing the deadliest parody ever. I do not think it is the latter, but I am put in that frame of mind by the cut where he appears to be channeling the Georgia Satellites. Nevertheless, this is a delicious album; he certainly slides right into that resonator. He also does a credible talking blues."

-Nightflying Publications
Little Rock, Arkansas
March, 2008 

 
   

"Promotional material accompanying Samuel Jamesí debut, Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy, suggest relevance is a better barometer for todayís blues artists than that old warhorse, Ďauthenticity.í Itís a valid point. In an increasingly noisy world, todayís blues artists - especially those rooted in acoustic tradition - better have something relevant to say. Otherwise they risk being lost amid the deafening din of modern life.

"James certainly has a traditional sound. Voice, guitar, and the percussive thump of tapping feet. He even whistles on occasion - not a sound prevalent in most of todayís pop music. But his songs - this is an all-original outing - sound as though they could easily have been written either yesterday or at the turn of the century. Thereís something timeless about these tales of barter and betrayal, murder and mercy, love and loss - themes as enduring as the human heart itself. A storyteller at heart, James knows that names and places may change with the telling, but the essential truth of the tale lives on.

"Take, for example, the last track on the disc.
The Sad Ballad Of Olí Willie Chan tells the story of a Chinese worker conscripted to lay railroad track in the days of the robber barons, who met his fate for having the audacity to ask for water. True, the railroadís been finished for a while now, but cruelty and inhumanity continue to flourish, and the songís message remains resonant.

"But just as the heart is capable of both joy and sorrow, allís not gloom and doom here. Opener
The 'Here Comes Nina' Country-Ragtime Surprise (James favours loooong titles!) is a jaunty romp full of joyous anticipation. Sugar Smallhouse Heads For The Hills is a rambling tale of love with a dangerous woman - surely a topic many men will identify with (and no, itís not sexist, ladies!). One-Eyed Katie is another cautionary tale in a similar vein (Sheís all woman/But not one bit lady), while both Sleepy Girl Blues and Baby Doll are typical blues love songs, wherein love isnít necessarily returned as James the protagonist would like.

"On the dark and dangerous side,
Sunrise Blues, a death-row meditation on regret, combines defiance and despair to riveting effect. Big Black Ben is a study in racial prejudice and misused authority, though the songís denouement provides an unexpected surprise. And Sugar Smallhouse makes a return appearance on the somewhat surreal Sugar Smallhouse And The Legend Of The Wandering Siren Cactus, while elsewhere we get Love and Mumbly-Peg (great title!), and Mid-December Blues, less about time of year than broken promises. Instrumentals include Whooooooo Rosa and Running From My Babyís Gun, Whilst Previously Watching Butterflies From My Front Porch, both employing ever-shifting rhythms and dynamics to maintain musical interest.

"James is an excellent player and fine singer, though his voice lacks the resonance of, say, a Keb ĎMo or Eric Bibb. Production here is superb, crisp and clear, and while itís the music itself that counts, itís worth noting that NorthernBlues retains their reputation for exemplary packaging.

"With so much of todayís music generated by computer, with producer rather than performer shaping the final product, Jamesí music provides an ideal antidote - sound is impeccably clean, sure, but thereís an organic honesty to it all thatís as refreshing as a spring breeze yet as comfortable as old jeans.

"This oneís a keeper, marking the debut of a voice and vision to be reckoned with, and leaving no doubt weíll be hearing much more from Samuel James. Get hip now!
"

-John R. Taylor
Canadianblues.ca
March, 2008 

 
   

"This is what music is all about: heart & soul, sorrow & joy. Samuel James, self taught musician and blues genius, started his true career in his early twenties. After a broken heart, he booked a flight to Ireland, with no way home. To find his way back, he learned how to play the harmonica, and spanged on the corner until he raised enough funds to get back to the states. That was less than 10 years ago, and from there, he only got better.

"
Songs Famed For Sorrow and Joy are stripped down and direct, based entirely in two guitars, a banjo, and only James performing. His brand of pre-war blues not only shows his impeccable ability to wield his instruments, but also to showcase his organic voice. Gruff, and filled to the brim with raw emotions, he tackles the topics of everyday life, especially as a person of color."

-The John Shelton Ivany Top Twenty-One
March, 2008 

 
   

"A former Intel executive, Fred Litwin left the corporate life for the indie-label grind in 2000, founding NorthernBlues Music after having been an investor in the Canadian folk label Borealis. 'I want this company to add substantially to the blues repertoire,' he writes on the labelís site, 'and not just come out with the Ďsame old, same old.í'

"Youíve got to admire his effort, considering even classical music makes most modern blues look stale. Currently, NorthernBlues has 24 artists, of which youíve maybe heard of Toni Lynn Washington and Watermelon Slim. The latter had his album,
The Wheel Man, named one of the best 10 albums of 2007 by Gibson Guitars. Okay, you might know Eddie Turner, too.

"And if you pay attention to local music at all, you probably know Samuel James. I guess you could openly wonder whether music that was contemporary circa 1932 does in fact constitute the same old, same old, but thatís unfair. Itís possible to make the old new again, and James infuses his brand of Delta-based, acoustic guitar-and-a-microphone blues with just enough swagger and grit to avoid becoming one of those portraits done by caricature artists that make you cringe with embarrassment when you see the result.

"NorthernBlues clearly took a cotton to James, hooked him up with producer David Travers-Smith (Ani DiFranco), and will this month release
Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy, a better-produced update of Jamesís sound on Return of Sugar Smallhouse, which took not a small portion of Portland by storm last year. A few songs reappear, including Big Black Ben and The ĎHere Comes Ninaí Country Rag-Time Surprise, but they arenít merely rehashings. Nina, youíll hear, is grittier and meaner, even more in line with the George-and-Weezy sentiment of 'Here she come, now she countiní to 10/Looks like I forgot to do those dishes again.'...

"... Pulling off an album like this is hard. The dangers of cliché and corn abound. Samuel James avoided both and produced sometime thatís better than classic or contemporary. He made something timeless.
"

-Sam Pfeifle
Boston Phoenix
February, 2008 

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"Samuel James comes from a musical background. His grandfather played blues guitar in the early part of the 20th Century and his father was a professional piano player and trombone player. He learned to tap dance at five, to play piano at eight, and was touring the Northeastern U.S. by the age of twelve. He fled to Ireland after a failed romance and learned to play harmonica while there. When he returned to the U.S., he learned to play guitar. Now in his late 20ís, heís released one of the most remarkably authentic acoustic blues releases in a long time. Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy, his second release and first for NorthernBlues Music, is as close to a modern version of the pre-war blues as Iíve heard in a long time.

"James wrote all 13 songs on the disc and performs them solo, accompanied only by his guitar or banjo. The highlights are many, and include
Big Black Ben, who was one bad dude, Wooooooo Rosa, a beautiful seven-minute instrumental, the manic Sleepy Girl Blues, Sugar Smallhouse Heads For the Hills, one of two songs featuring the Smallhouse character, and One-Eyed Katie, whoís 'all woman, but not one bit lady.'

"The lively rag,
Baby-Doll, is another keeper as is the intriguingly titled Runniní From My Babyís Gun Whilst Previously Watchiní Butterflies From My Front Porch, which is actually another superb instrumental. Love & Mumbly-Peg and The Sad Ballad of Olí Willie Chan, like the rest of Jamesí 'story songs', are fascinating narratives featuring fully fleshed-out character. You can actually feel their pain, their loss, and even their anger while youíre listening.

"Songs Famed for Sorrow and Joy is as good as acoustic blues gets. Trust me when I say youíll be listening to it over and over again for a long time. Visit Samuel Jamesí MySpace page at www.myspace.com/sugarsmallhouse."

-Graham Clarke
Blues Bytes
March, 2008 

 
   

"Past a certain point in the history of music, it appears as though all (or at least, the vast majority) of blues artists ditched their acoustic guitars in favor of electric instruments, and sought the aid of a band accompaniment. However, if you go back to blues recordings circa the time of say, Robert Johnson, blues initially spotlighted a single person wailing away on an acoustic guitar and also handling singing duties. Come the early 21st century, this early blues style seemed to have been all but forgotten. But then along comes Samuel James, and his 2008 release, Songs Famed for Sorrow. James' second release overall, the entire thirteen-track set was recorded in five days, and is 100% acoustic (with percussion being provided by the beat of James' feet). As a result, tracks such as Big Black Ben, One Eyed Katie, and Sleepy Girl Blues automatically take you back to the early days of authentic blues. In an era where popular music is becoming increasingly perfect sounding and robotic, Songs Famed for Sorrow proves to be a much-needed alternative."

-Greg Prato
All Music Guide
February, 2008 

 
   

"Samuel James is a twenty-something performer and songwriter from Portland, Maine. Songs Famed For Sorrow and Joy is his first release for NorthernBlues Music. Did you notice I labeled Mr. James as a performer and songwriter? I did this because his song writing ability completely blows me away and it would be a shame if you did not know that. Oh yeah, heís a damned fine musician too!

"The stories you get to hear on this CD originate from a place I have never been, nor will I probably ever be.

"His personal story is unique and fascinating. Jamesí grandfather played guitar, his father was a professional pianist who also played the trombone. Jamesí own artistic development began at the age of five when he learned how to tap dance. At age eight he began playing the piano. He started touring the Northeastern circuit at age twelve. He also lost his mother at age twelve. As a result, he spent his teen years bouncing from foster home to foster home. He later reunited with his father at 17.

"After a relationship soured, a broken-hearted James went to Ireland. Iím not sure why he went, but who of us would have had the stones to travel to another country after a young lady had left us? To get back home, James took up the harmonica and started playing on the streets to raise enough money for airfare. Upon his arrival back in the states, James dedicated himself to the guitar. You hear all of this in his debut album for NorthernBlues Music.

"Musically, this CD can be described in word. That word is...AGGRESSIVE. Thereís nothing subtle here and I really like that. Samuel James is Kebí Moí on steroids! His stories are straightforward, his musicianship is as honest and hardworking as that of his elders.

"The CD starts out with
The 'Here Comes Nina' Country Ragtime Surprise. We get to hear Jamesí supreme fingerpicking style support the first of many linear stories. James does not follow the 12 bar blues format, which is actually very refreshing. Big Black Ben tells the story of...well, of a guy named Ben. Ben is a badass! Listen for yourself. Again, the accompaniment James provides gives you the impression heís not here to mess around.

"James plays the banjo on
Sugar Smallhouse Heads For the Hills. The line, 'you know Iíll fight for a woman, but I sure wonít fight fair' is great!

"No artists accompany James on the CD. Itís all him, itís all-acoustic and itís all heart. He recorded the CD in five days using nine microphones, two guitars, one banjo and two feet for percussion. James stated '
It was the hardest week of my life, which is saying something considering I grew up in Maine in white foster homes.' Again, he comes from a place Iíll never know, but I am sure glad he let me in!

"
Wooooooo Rosa is the first instrumental on the CD. I must admit that acoustic instrumentals usually leave me bored. Not this one. Like so many attempt to do, but in my mind fail, James is actually telling a story using his instrument. He does it well. He kept this listener interested.

"In total, you get about an hour of music and, as always, the packaging provided by NorthernBlues is first rate.

"Hopefully, Iíve given you enough to want to buy this CD. Do not be surprised if this CD is nominated for awards next year. You heard it here first.

"Rest assured, if and when Samuel James comes to town, I will be there and I will drag as many of you with me as I can."

-Sir Hodge
Oracles Music Network
February 15, 2008 

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"Hereís a lad on the sunny side of 30 that wisely left his mug off his album cover because heís got a fun retro nuevo blues thing going on. With a stomping foot that rivals John Hurt or Howliní Wolf and a raw, howling vocal over his super slide guitar, this is a new version of 'real' blues. Heís not overly revering the past and not disregarding tradition but if anything ever earned the Bonnie Raitt seal of approval, this is the stuff thatís the real deal. Mississippi Fred as well as Mississippi John are smiling."

-Chris Spector
Midwest Record
February 7, 2008 

 
   

"Samuel James is a bona fide blues original. He has taken the music of the Delta masters and updated it with his own spin of clever, contemporary-flavored lyrics and a cool cast of characters that deal with everything from heartbreak to racism to one-eyed lovers. Obvious comparisons will be made to the likes of Skip James or Son House, but Samuel will tell you he's more in tune with the "storyteller" mode of Mississippi John Hurt.

"On his first Northern Blues release,
Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy Samuel uses only two acoustic guitars and a banjo on this one-man set. His ability to weave a tale is evident in his stories of red-hot lovers such as Baby Doll, Nina, and the notorious One-Eyed Katie, "all woman but not one bit lady!" Samuel wields a mean banjo in the tale of his alter ego, Sugar Smallhouse Heads For The Hills, and gives a nod to some of his literary favorites in Legend Of The Wandering Siren Cactus.

"Our favorites, tho, were the story of the sheriff and
Big Black Ben, and the strange love triangle in Love And Mumbly-Peg. These are guaranteed to make you smile, and, on repeated listenings, make you think a little, too!

"That is a good way to describe Samuel James. He is for sure a "cerebral bluesman" who has taken a centuries-old style of music and brouhgt it to a new-millennium level. Kudos to Fred Litwin and the good folks up at Northern Blues for bringing
Songs Famed For Sorrow And Joy to a world-wide audience!"

-Sheryl and Don Crow
The Music City Blues Society
February, 2008