Fri 8/29/03 - Willisau, SWITZERLAND @ Willisau Festival
Sat 8/30/03 - Saalfelden, AUSTRIA @ Saalfelden Festival
JAMES BLOOD ULMER
No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions
In Stores September 9th, 2003 on HYENA
Produced by Vernon Reid
The follow up to 2001's Grammy Award-nominated Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions
Featuring Special Guests Olu Dara & Queen Esther
James Blood Ulmer to be Featured in Martin Scorsese's seven-part PBS series "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues-A Musical Journey" airing late September 2003
In Studio A at the hallowed Electric Lady Studios in New York City, James Blood Ulmer and his band are set up in a circle: producer and guitarist Vernon Reid with pedals and wires entwined about his feet and stretching to his rig, a ring of hot rod guitars at his back; bassist Mark Peterson and drummer Aubrey Dayle side by side holding down a loose and steady groove as they've done alongside Blood countless nights prior around the world; against the far wall painted in a bright blue psychedelic mural with a cloud of smoke always drifting just above his head sits Charlie Burnham, Blood's foil in the now legendary Odyssey band and currently deconstructing the blues with blasts of electric wah-wah drenched fiddle and howling slide mandolin; to the immediate left is harpist David Barnes, wailing to the heavens and channeling the ghost of Little Walter; rounding out Ulmer's cosmic roadhouse band is Leon Gruenbaum, vintage gear at his fingertips from Wurlitzer to Fender Rhodes, a Yahama Baby Grand to Jimi Hendrix's original Hammond B-3.
No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions is the next chapter in a story that began at Sun Studios, Memphis, Tennessee, April 2001. It was the idea of Vernon Reid to bring James Blood Ulmer back to his Southern roots. Ulmer grew up in the deep South, son of a Baptist preacher, taught from an early age to fear the blues. His mother warned him repeatedly of its evil influence. In no uncertain terms, it was the "Devil's Music." The man down the street playing bottleneck guitar on his front porch, drunk on corn liquor, was a result of the blues life. Yet as hard as Ulmer tried to be faithful to his mother's teaching, there was truly, No Escape From The Blues. It was part of the very fabric of the land-a birthright. When he arrived at Sun in Memphis all those years later, Ulmer found himself face to face with the songs and music once again. Producer Vernon Reid insisted he run from his past no more.
The resulting album, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, gave life to Reid's assertion that Ulmer was one of the last great American blues voices. It was a concept that took vision being that Ulmer is revered as a jazz musician having come to national acclaim as a disciple of Ornette Coleman's Harmolodic school. "The thing about Blood is that he's not playing the blues, he is the blues. All the stories that these songs tell, that's his life, he's lived that, it defines him," declares Reid. "He's staring his past straight in the face with this music. It's the conflict, the fact that he's now confronting this head on that makes the music so vital."
In the true spirit of falling to one's knees at the crossroads, this chapter was haunted by the devil early along the way. Memphis Blood was released September 7, 2001. One week later the tragic events of September 11th occurred. By September 17th, Label M (the record company that issued Memphis Blood), was shuttered. This left Ulmer and his most celebrated album in over a decade to wither on the vine. And yet word of Memphis Blood's authentic potency spread, garnering critical praise and stubbornly refusing to die. With the album suffering such a harsh fate, nobody expected it to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the "Traditional Blues Recording of the Year" category. Memphis Blood subsequently sold through the remainder of copies that had been shipped to record stores.
Now almost an exact two years to the day in April 2003, James Blood Ulmer and company gathered again under the direction of Vernon Reid to further explore what they began in Memphis. The reason for recording in New York City at the fabled Electric Lady Studios grew from the idea that the blues itself had migrated from the rural south to the booming urban metropolises of the north. Ulmer's career paralleled this exodus. At the age of 17 he left his home in St. Matthews, South Carolina and relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, gigging in organ combos on the juke joint circuit. He then moved to Detroit, Michigan and finally to New York City where he's lived for the past 30 years.
The songs recorded on No Escape From The Blues often deal directly with migration and the struggles of adjusting to big city life. Blood sings them with brutal honesty and raw conviction. It's clear, as Reid stated, he has lived the tales he sings of. From the opening jug band stomp of the Jimmy Reed chestnut "Goin' To New York" to the harsh realization that not all is paved with gold upon arriving north-"The Hustle Is On"-doubling as timely contemporary commentary.
Blood's take on Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talkin'" is downright possessed, reciting the lyrics like a man who's been "the cause of it all" one too many times. We also hear the first of several cuts on which Blood turns out inspired guitar work essentially acoustic and unplugged on his Gibson Birdland; a first on record for the legendary guitarist.
Johnny Copeland's classic "Ghetto Child" is up next and it's arguably the strongest vocal performance of Ulmer's career. It might also be the album's most significant meeting of the traditional and modern. The song is sung from the perspective of the "Ghetto Child" whose mother's taken ill, whose father has left and who's turned away from school for arriving with no shoes. In keeping with the concept of migration and its inherent struggles, the song is rural and urban, ancient and current. Ulmer states: "The blues is nothin' more than a story. The 'Ghetto Child' story is deep. Yeah, that one's good."
"Are You Glad To Be In America?" is the first of two solo performances by Ulmer. It is also one of two original Ulmer compositions. The song stands tall alongside the rest of the record's material, highlighting the strength of Ulmer's own writing. The question Blood poses is at once seemingly earnest and ironic, touching on both opportunity and burden. Blood comes across like a long lost blues preacher stumbled upon somewhere at the bottom of the radio dial moaning ghostly the refrain, "Home of the brave and slavery is obsolete."
At this point in the album, No Escape From The Blues takes a decidedly looser, more freewheeling turn. Ulmer leaves behind the troubled terrain of struggle, poverty and betrayal, and his sense of humor emerges beginning with a steady rocking, feel good duet featuring Queen Esther on John Lee Hooker's "You Know, I Know." The two trade verses tempting each other with a certain future rendezvous. Queen Esther, who recently finished a stint in the off-Broadway musical "Harlem Song," soars in the tradition of the great blues divas.
Blood keeps the joint jumping with a burning romp through Earl King's "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)." In further enchanted blues lure, the tune was chosen by Vernon Reid in light of Jimi Hendrix's version on Electric Ladyland. However, the day before the sessions began, Earl King passed away adding an entirely new dimension to its inclusion. David Barnes' midnight hour harmonica tag is dead on the spot, setting up a smoky, spaced out take of Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City," with Queen Esther on harmony, Maya Smullyan Jenkins tap dancing and very special guest Olu Dara on pocket trumpet. Olu, who was once a member of Ulmer's band in the early 1980s, has not appeared on record with Blood since that time. Their reunion is a session highlight.
"Well somebody made a mistake when they said life was a bowl of fruit, you know I had to go downtown and pawn my last suit, well I can see I was born to lose, and for me there ain't No Escape From the Blues," demands Ulmer, wearing his life's woes like a badge of honor on the album's title track. The band kicks, thumps and rumbles, driving the tune forward with frantic momentum and energy. "I named the album after this song because it best tells what this record is all about," explains Ulmer.
Ulmer's second original composition and solo piece is "Satisfy (Story of My Life)." An ode to the women in his life, and the complexities of keeping him happy, this is pure Ulmer psychology. Sisters around the world take note.
The album's journey is summed up with the haunted faith of "Trouble In Mind." This was the last track recorded for the record - the arrangement seemingly floating out of the ether as the musicians ran it down. Take two is the keeper. There was not a soul in the vicinity of the music being created that didn't feel the hair on the back of their neck rise. John Kruth sits in on tamboura. Blood moans in a weary baritone. All possible roads have been exhausted, and all that's left to do is hold out for the sun.
No Escape From the Blues closes with the raucous, electrified send off, "The Blues Had A Baby and Called It Rock & Roll." The Muddy Waters' tune is a perfectly fitting closer in light of where the blues would ultimately go upon arriving north and thus tying together the thread that runs through the recording.
No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions is scheduled for release September 9th, 2003 on HYENA Records. Additionally, HYENA has secured the rights to Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and has since reissued it. Look for James Blood Ulmer & The Memphis Blood Blues Band to perform select dates late this summer and early fall. In addition, Ulmer & Reid will be featured in Martin Scorsese's upcoming seven part PBS series "Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues-A Musical Journey."