A tireless traveling musician, bluesman Steve James is certainly no secret, but neither is he as well known as he would be in a just world. If you like gritty, honest music with energy and expression, and you haven’t listened to Steve James—well, you’re missing out. Invented before the first electric guitar was plugged in, the formidable National resonator remains the acoustic instrument of choice for this type of music, and Steve James plays it the way it was meant to be played (as does his special guest, the remarkable Del Rey on a Ron Phillips guitar). This is lively fingerstyle with a thumping bass and dancing melody lines. On new arrangements of old songs like “Worried Blues” and “Dough Roller” and (my favorite) “The Same Thing Could Happen to You,” Steve James displays a virtuosic slide guitar as smooth as polished glass and as sharp as a piece of broken glass. His boisterous mandolin playing has never been snappier than on this album—Yank Rachel would be proud—and this album even offers listeners the rare treat of slide mandolin (which sounds a bit gimmicky until you actually hear it, and then it sounds great). In addition to boasting the road-earned technical prowess of an old-school songster, Steve James brings a true erudition to his playing that taps his listeners directly into the thrilling history of this music. As homage to past masters of the genre, the original songs here occasionally echo delicious little licks or snatch clever bits of lyrical phrases from classic songs while always remaining completely fresh. The cover songs here always bring a new perspective to familiar tunes, and it’s especially exhilarating to hear his slide arrangement of Furry Lewis’s “Judge Harsh Blues” when you recall that Steve James spent formative years as a guitarist under the tutelage of that storied bluesman. It’s a beautiful tribute to a past master, and like so much of his fine work, it demonstrates that this blues scholar is truly a master of the idiom in his own right. Short Blue Stories shows Steve James at the top of his form. You don’t want to miss this album.
Check it out on CD Baby: Steve James, Short Blue Stories (2008)