JAMES HARMAN: Fineprint
Electro-Fi 3454 (55:47)
Fineprint/ In With The Grief…In With The Gravy/ Come On And Dance With Me/ At The Flophouse/ What’cha Gonna Do ‘Bout Me #1/ What’cha Gonna Do ‘Bout Me #2/ A Busy Man (When This Old World Turns It’s Back On You)/ Memory Foam Mattress/ The Fruits Of The Poisoned Tree/ Slam On The Brakes/ Familiarity Breeds Contempt, But Absence Make The Heart Grow Fonder/ Glide/ A Ticket To The Circus
James Harman was born in Anniston, Alabama and has been ‘your full-service bluesman since 1962’ when he was sixteen. To sneak into a club to see Junior Parker, he wore a fake moustache and his musical journey in the ’60s took him back and forth across the States: Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans. Along the way, he moved to Southern California, fell in with Canned Heat and became their harp player of choice. He cut albums that came out on Rivera, Rhino, Black Top, and Cannonball. By my reckoning ‘Fineprint’ is only the fourth album James Harman has released this century, even before then he was hardly profligate and what there was is now largely out of catalogue. His work has a remarkable consistency, each release carefully crafted with the cream of the available accompanists. In 2015 he and his band found a new home on the Electro-Fi imprint which has steadily garnered an enviable reputation for harp-led projects (for example those by Billy Boy Arnold) – it made sense to add him to the roster. His label debut ‘Bonetime’ was well-received and should have turned several nominations into awards, on this evidence they have another winner on the books.
There is a baker’s dozen of Harman’s compositions here: some are cautionary, some wryly humorous, all keenly observed. Out of the gate, the title track is a heavily-influenced John Lee Hooker boogie, delivered perfectly with space, mallet on toolbox and without harp – indeed Harman is a generous band leader, happy to give the spotlight to others across the album. ‘In With The Grief…’ has a markedly different feel with solos from Nathan James on guitar and Gene Taylor on piano, Harman’s harp corrals the players back from excess. Nathan moves to acoustic National resonator slide guitar for ‘Come On And Dance With Me’ as the Latin groove unfolds to urge a girl to take a chance rather than the safe option. It is James’ best vocal outing in a while as he spars with his own harp. In story-teller mode there’s ‘At The Flophouse’ to think on, while the rough edges of true love are explored on ‘Fruit Of The Poisoned Tree’.
New Orleans piano is the obvious reference point for ‘What’cha Gonna Do About Me #1’ – it’s a tale of gossip about gossip and how it can mess up your thinking; the band went back into the studio on a different day with the same riff but moved the emphasis to the drums and harp to create ‘#2’ which shades its predecessor in my humbles. Possibly in homage to Robert Lockwood Jr., he goes back to basics for some solo unforced walking electric guitar and harp on ‘A Busy Man’; it’s another engaging vocal. Coming straight after is quite possibly the first blues song ever about a memory-foam mattress – lovely restrained sticksmanship on cocktail drums from Mike Tempo underpins some Pat Hare sounding guitar by Nathan James. The band cracks on around Taylor’s piano to ‘Slam On The Brakes’ comfortable in each other’s space. Ex-pat Carl Sonny Leyland then drops in to bring his considerable gifts to ‘Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder’, it is just like having Professor Longhair in the room. The penultimate track, ‘Glide’, is the lengthy Marmite song James concedes most folks will skip on repeated plays and I can hear why – it lacks the focus and conciseness of what came before. It wouldn’t be a complete James Harman project without a clown reference somewhere and the closer ‘At The Circus’ doesn’t disappoint.
As a writer James is somewhat underrated, yet this is as fine a collection as you’d wish for as it dips into several styles of blues. At no point does his voice strain to sound black and he coaxes some memorable performances from its sinews. His harp playing is solid and he has no need to show off with it. Harman is the real deal: ‘Fineprint’ proves it in spades.
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