Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

A couple folks took me to task a few weeks ago when I posited that, of the 1960s SKIP JAMES "rediscovery" discs I'd heard, none were really worth spending any quality time with. Tsk tsk, some of you said, and you know what? At least in one instance, this very fine set of live-to-mic solo studio recordings called "Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers", you were spot-on. Of course I've got a built-in bias centered around trotting out a guy who made such masterpiece, ethereal blues recordings in 1931, and then expecting him to come anywhere near that level thirty-three years hence. I'd be like expecting the Rolling Stones to make another "Exile on Main Street" in 2005 or a reunited Black Flag to come up with another "Damaged" ten years from now. Mere competence would be plenty enough, and James exceeds that in spades here. Even more so, he came bursting back with brand new songs that had depth and soul and warmth that most musicians would just kill for, particularly "Sick Bed Blues" and "Washington DC Hospital Center Blues", both of which take an almost silly premise -- James was in the hospital and he became lonely because no one came to visit him -- and turns it into a sort of wry, funny but still sparsely-played blues that is unmistakably the master of bleary-eyed depresso blues himself, Mr. Skip James. His strange tunings and off-putting falsetto are still hanging around as well, a little worse for wear but a damn site better than so many of his rediscovered contemporaries. He also was not adverse to mucking about with his old material, either; it took me a good twenty seconds to recognize the god-given classic "Devil Got My Woman" because of a new arrangement that James threw together -- not sure if he was bored, drunkenly ham-handed or simply aiming to reinvent & reassert himself, but it worked. It indeed is refreshing to hear a session that captured so much of the guy's magic so far down the line, and I thank TA especially and others who called me on my BS a few weeks ago & offered convincing aural evidence to the contrary.