When the blues don''t groan up from the soul, catch fire from the crotch or bleed from the heart, they''re just songs. So you have to be suspicious of so-called blues bands that do a lot of cover songs; there''s a basic dishonesty at work: They''re singing someone else''s blues. Some bands do a pretty good job of covering up that dishonesty with high-powered noise or excessive displays of energy. And if you''re just looking to party, that may be enough.
But if you''re looking to catch a whiff of the real blues, music that comes from somewhere deep, you need something like James Armstrong''s second album, Dark Night.
About half the songs on the album were written by Armstrong, and those are the strongest of the bunch. The title cut howls quietly at midnight ghosts, trying to figure things out. "When the moon is risin''/Bad boys shoot their guns/There goes another brother/There goes another son/It''s a dark night, it''s a dark night/But I can still see the light/Is anybody watching?/Is there any kind of plan?/Is everything just spinning out of hand..."
Armstrong isn''t the only blues guy who''s talking about what''s going down in the world, although most focus their attention on love and the dirty boogie. (You''ll find more social commentary from blues gals, today.) But Armstrong has some inside experience.
In April ''97, an intruder invaded Armstrong''s Sunnyvale apartment, stabbed Armstrong, and threw his two-year-old son out a second story window. Armstrong, a critically acclaimed slide guitarist, is still doing physical therapy to regain full use of his left arm and hand. There''s some soul behind the vocals when Armstrong finishes off "Dark Night" with, "I''m just going to sit here/With my guitar in my hand/I know there ain''t no answer/But I''m just trying to understand/It''s a dark night..."
Further down in the album, there''s another Armstrong original, "Lil'' James." You don''t hear many blues songs about kids. Especially not from men, we''re too tough for that. Right? "Lil'' James/My first son/Lil'' James/The only food he likes is/Macaroni and cheese/But he don''t eat much/He''s slender like me/That smile is enough/To keep you satisfied/He brings happiness/With those big brown eyes...He''s an Armstrong/You can''t keep him down/The love of my life/He will always remain/And he''s got Junior behind his name..." The pride in Armstrong''s voice is audible--and it''s a pride to which most any of us fathers can relate.
I''m on about my fourth time through the album now. And I like it better each time.
Check this guy out.
James Armstrong, Thursday, 9pm. Doc''s Nightclub, 649-4241.
Local bluesers managed by Steve Vagnini, Red Beans and Rice and The Broadway Band have back-to-back gigs at Sly McFly''s this weekend.
Red Beans & Rice, Friday, 8:30pm; The Broadway Band, Saturday, 8:30pm. Sly McFly''s, 649-8050.
And The Hepsters, a rockabilly outfit from Santa Cruz, do the honors at Blue Fin Billiards on Saturday. The band, fronted by Gil Cadilli was originally formed back in the mid ''80s, during the mini-rockabilly-revival spurred by The Stray Cats. That, as we know, did not last long.
But Cadilli (vocals/acoustic guitar) and original Hepster Andy Miller crossed paths again this year and, with a major rockabilly craze threatening to throw every hip in the nation out of joint, decided to re-create the band. And so they did. But don''t expect straight rockabilly. After 14 years, the band (Cadilli and Miller, with Mike Phillips on stand-up bass, Mark Bohn on drums and Pancho Rodriguez on clave, quiro and shakers) delivers a blend of rock, country swing and Latin music.
The Hepsters, Saturday, 9pm. Blue Fin Billiards, 375-7000.