10 songs – 42 minutes
Anyone with the tongue-in-cheek temerity to select Blind Lemon Pledge as a stage name in the blues, melding together the memory of one of the art form’s first-generation superstars with that of a common furniture polish, better be able to deliver when he gets behind the microphone. Fortunately, that’s the case for multi-instrumentalist and songwiter James Byfield, who delivers this interesting, original take on roots music from his home base in San Francisco.
Byfield first drew international attention while still a student at San Francisco State University a few decades ago when he created “The Rock Mass,” which Time magazine identified as the first use of rock music in a liturgical setting. His deep appreciation for country blues since his early teens didn’t sway him from pursuing country, folk, jazz and even Chinese classical music. He began performing under the Pledge moniker in 2008 and issued his first CD, Livin’ My Life With The Blues, a year later. Well-received, it featured him in an acoustic setting as he delivered original material in the manner of old-time blues string bands. Two more discs – I Would Rather Go Blind with a more modern backing band, and Against The Grain, which touched on folk, swing and Southern gospel, preceded his one, which returns him to his old-timey roots.
Pledge produced sings and plays almost all of the instruments for Evangeline, although he’s created a list of humorously named sidemen: Hugh Jorgan (keyboards), Gene Poole (bass), Isaac “Jzzy” Cumming (drums), Alvin “Albee” Bakatcha (percussion) and Otto F. Tewne (banjo). Alex Blaine-Laydor, Lauralyn Hardy, Willie B. Hardigan, Don Menchinet, Anita Moorehead and Bess Twishes provide harmony vocals, and Barbara “Barb” Dwyer (marimba), Gil T. Azell (vibraphone) and Xavier Munnie (harmonica) join in.
A haunting cigar box guitar and harmonica riff alternates with the a capella delivery of “Buley’s Farm,” an a capella tribute to prison songs with the standard complaint about working conditions and the strong desire to get away. The album moves forward in time with “Jennie Bell,” a folk ballad that features some intricate maneuvers on the acoustic six-string. It’s a sweet love song delivered from the perspective of a singer who’s about to leave his lady behind to test his talents on the bigger stages of New Orleans. Next up is a bit of original Crescent City honky tonk. “Brimstone Joe” is inspired by the music of Jelly Roll Morton and describes “the guy to know” for good women and a good time on Canal Street.
Pledge picks up electric slide guitar for the blues bar rocker, “Midnight Assignation,” a tip of the hat to the legend of trading one’s soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for musical talent. The styling turns to jump blues next for “Go Jump The Willie,” the singer’s tribute to ‘40s superstar Louis Jordan offset by some tasty, understated single-note picking, before he takes a turn at “Language Of Love,” a blues-tinged salsa about a trip to Puerto Rico. He moves back to the mainland next for “Ham And Eggs,” a tip of the hat to Cole Porter and the American Songbook using uptempo blues harmonies in the style of the Andrews Sisters.
The album then takes an immediate right-hand turn to a late night high society blues joint with the smoky “How Can I Still Love You” before touching on folk rock with “You Had Me At Goodbye” and finally returning to the blue root with “Evangeline,” a Delta-style slide guitar piece inspired by Son House.
Pledge’s musical journey takes you from the bottom of the blues to the top and back again. His touch is light and sweet, and the ride is a gentle departure from most of the albums you’ll listen to today. Different and enjoyable. Available from Amazon and CDBaby.com.