James Armstrong – Blues Been Good To Me | Album Review

James Armstrong – Blues Been Good To Me

Catfood Records CFR-025

10 songs – 38 minutes


Los Angeles-born James Armstrong is a true blues survivor. A silky smooth guitarist with a pleasant, sometimes smoky, voice, he was on the verge of stardom in the mid-’90s after the release of his first album, Sleeping With A Stranger, when tragedy struck.

The son of a jazz guitarist, James was a protege of the great Smokey Wilson, for whom he played second guitar for years beginning in his early 20s. Influenced strongly by Texan Albert Collins and jump blues legend Sam Taylor, he earned his first recording contract with the band Mama Roo in the ’80s before signing with HighTone Records and getting rave reviews.

Before he could enjoy his success, however, he suffered major injuries in a home invasion. Not only did it leave him without the use of his left hand, but created nerve damage that still troubles him today. He credits his recovery to the support of friends and fans — and the entire blues community should be grateful, too, especially with Armstrong producing CDs as tasty as this one.

As he explains on his website, during the two years he was sidelined, he gained a new understanding for the slow blues stylings that dominate Blues Been Good To Me, his third release on Bob Trenchard’s Catfood Records imprint, and gave him time to perfect his singing and songwriting skills.

A multiple Blues Music Award nominee whose tunes have appeared in several films, James recorded and co-produced this one with Rawls in St. Louis and Jim Gaines in Stantonville, Tenn., backed by a veteran ensemble that includes Mike Murdock, a veteran of Buddy Guy’s and Little Milton’s bands, and Brother John Kattke (Eric Clapton, Nick Moss and Larry McCray) on keyboards, Johnny McGhee of the band LTD on rhythm guitar, Andrew Blaze Thomas (Billy Branch, Bernard Allison and Ronnie Baker Brooks) on drums, and Darryl Wright (Mavis Staples) and Will Jackson on bass. They’re augmented by a horn section comprised of Bryan and Corey Fitz and Kasimu Taylor as well as Rawls, Mary Jo Curry, Amy Slack and Kimberlie Helton who provide backing vocals.

From the first notes of “Blues Been Good To Me,” one of eight Armstrong originals on the disc, you know that James means business. After a brief intro, his guitar lines cut like a knife atop a syncopated medium-tempo shuffle as he describes his gratefulness about all that he’s received because of his music and world travels. The opening bars of “Second Time Around” hint at Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” but quickly evolve into a stop-time blues about wooing a woman who’s a little wayward about romance after being burned before.

Armstrong follows by reinventing Robert Palmer’s 1986 monster hit “Addicted To Love” with a full soul-blues treatment before Kattke’s keys open the slow-blues burner “Early Grave,” an image-filled song of heartbreak after a woman returns home late from a night of lovemaking with another man. It stylishly mixes images of Elvis and Robert Johnson into the mix. Next up, “Old Man In The Morning (Young Man At Night)” will put a smile on your face as it describes the difficulty an aging musician has when arising, but how those aches and pains disappear the minute he hits the stage.

“Change The Weather,” a syrupy slow ballad, finds the singer once more with a broken heart before James turns the Holland, Dozier and Holland masterpiece, “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You,” into an uptempo swing with country music overtones. The hook of “Ain’t Another Love Song” echoes the Temptations’ “My Girl” at the open, but immediately slides into a ballad that expresses words of love for a woman that should have been spoken long before. A new arrangement of “Sleeping With A Stranger,” from his Armstrong’s first record, follows before another burner, “Shot Gun Wedding,” describes a relationship doomed from the start and brings the disc to a close.

A perfectionist at heart, Armstrong has delivered a winner with this album. Available through several online retailers or autographed and direct from the artist’s website (address above), it’s unhurried and skillfully delivered throughout. Strongly recommended for fans who like their blues smooth and with a strong taste of soul.

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