Blues at the Border
This is James Armstrong’s fourth CD and my second encounter with his music (I own his previous, Got It Going On). Armstrong, is a bluesman who leans toward soul and funk while maintaining enough “heritage” to keep frowning blues fan engaged. Armstrong writes, sings, and plays guitar. On this disc, his songs are augmented by his band comprising keyboards, drums, bass, backup female vocals. Like my previous experience, this CD is refreshing in its upbeat approach to the blues' most common themes: lost love, sin, death, laws, and relationships. James Armstrong never fails to create songs that will have you playing them back in your head.
Armstrong kicks off the CD with the memorable "Everything Good To Ya (Ain't Always Good For Ya)." This funky romp features B3 organ and Armstrong's and his female "church choir" belting our the refrain. Taken tongue-in-cheek, the song still rings so true with today's need to self indulge. "Somebody Got To Pay," is a minor key lament about the fact that nothing in life is free from, well, some sort of "debt." (Listen to Armstrong’s lovely walkup between chords.) "Baby Can You Hear Me," shows Armstrong's roots, mixing blues, jazz, and pop sentiments. One of Armstrong's strong suites is his tackling day-to-day themes in an upbeat way, allowing the listener to avoid, well, the blues. "Blues At The Border" begins with a metal body guitar riff taking us in to Armstrong's slide-driven attack on the heavy burden of "identification" when travelling. Funny, yes, and oh so true. Remember this song the next time you're waiting to take off your shoes, etc. at the airport security gate. "Devil's Candy" deals with a well-known theme, saved in this case by Armstrong's slide guitar and driving beat. You can guess the devil's candy is: you want it; you shouldn't have it, but . . . . "Nothing Left To Say," addresses the end of a relationship where the closed subject meets the one more try. "High Maintenance Woman" has echoes of Albert Collins' "Master Card" in it. This hilarious tune details Armstrong's life with a woman who has "more moves than Sinatra and more swings than Tiger Woods." Like "Master Card," Armstrong carries on a conversations with his woman, but remains unable to curtail her habits. "Good Man Bad Thing," is the story of a man at the threshold of committing a sin and questioning the wisdom of going "in." Young Man With The Blues," might be the story of Armstrong or any number of bluesmen. With its "All Along The Watchtower" intro, this song overviews vignettes from life that drive a "young man" to the blues. "Brand New Man" is the jazziest cut on the CD. Armstrong trades licks with B3 player Bob Trenchard. Another cool groove, ala Jimmy Smith. "Long Black Car" completes the disc with solid advice about what it takes to get into heaven. In the hands of someone else, these songs might seem preachy, but here the arranging and flow keep us listening, enjoying, and part of Armstrong's "congregation."
Although Armstrong is not terribly well known, his discs are enjoyable and funky. He deserves more attention than he has gotten. If unique take on soul blues is a good listen for the mores ardent blues fan as well as a wider black audience. Blues At The Border is another solid disc from James Armstrong.
Reviewed by David Stine