Blind Lemon Pledge – A Satchel Full of Blues
12 songs – 44 minutes
Blind Lemon Pledge delivers music that’s as quirky as his stage name, something that’s easily apparent from the first listen to this album, the ninth CD he’s released since adopting the name 13 years ago. Born James Byfield, he pays tribute here to the songwriters who inspired him as a youth.
A prolific San Francisco Bay Area tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist, he mixes acoustic and electric blues and Americana here in a continuation of his lifelong interest in the relationship between melody and lyrics. Blind Lemon started writing songs at age eight and spent his youth delving into pre-War country blues and then expanding his world to include the full range of what’s now considered to be Americana.
An artist with Renaissance sensibilities studied Chinese classical music and played in jazz bands, he’s also experimented with electronic music and recording techniques, and penned what’s considered to be the first-ever rock-music mass, attracting national press coverage in the process, before a lengthy career as a graphic designer and media producer.
Byfield’s first release under his new name was the self-produced Livin’ My Life with the Blues in 2008, a disc that mixed originals with classic covers. It proved to be so successful that, in 2015, he trademarked the Blind Lemon Pledge name, regularly fronting his self-named acoustic quartet. This release finds him in a stripped-down three-piece format, playing guitar and harmonica and backed by the understated rhythm section of bassist Peter Grenell and drummer Juli Moscovitz.
The uptempo original, “Wrong Side of the Blues,” finds Blind Lemon “shakin’ like a California quake” and his chest “achin’ like a Georgia heartbreak” as he describes a world of trouble in his relaxed tenor. The musical accompaniment is light and airy beneath his lyrics, but the harp line runs throughout and is a distraction, something that continues throughout. While Pledge is solid on the six-string, his attack on the reeds is – to be kind – limited.
The action brightens dramatically with the sparse ballad “If Beale Street Was a Woman,” a sweet tribute to Memphis that features some tasty picking and Moscovitz on brushes before the tempo quickens as Blind Lemon lays down Delta-style slide and professes his love for “Black Eyed Susie.” The object of his attention changes to “Sherri Lynn” in the laid-back, fingerpicked ballad that follows before “Heart So Cruel” serves up a smorgasbord of complaints about shattered romance.
The theme continues in the jazzy, bittersweet “Blue Heartbreak” before Pledge turns to ragtime as he describes a childhood crush in medium-fast blues shuffle, “Teacher, Teacher,” a clever number laced with double-entendre lyrics and hints of other school-themed tunes throughout. Without speaking his name, Blind Lemon recounts the death of Robert Johnson in “I Killed the King of the Blues” next, delivering it from the standpoint of the man who poisoned him for stealing his woman.
The loping “Detour Blues” comes with a Western swing feel before a reworking of Lead Belly’s traditional “Alberta.” Two more somber originals — “Before I Take My Rest” and “Death Don’t Ask Permission” – bring the album to a close.
A Satchel Full of Blues is a mixed bag of refreshing material that deserves to be unpacked by other hands.