I certainly didn't expect James Armstrong to kick off his latest with the chuckle-inducing Grandma's Got a New Friend, a song that sounds like it might've been left on the cutting room floor from Ry Cooder's classic Bop Til You Drop, now rightly rescued and put up front. The release, indeed the continuing career of Armstrong, is a heartening reversal of past misfortune, as the guitar-slinger in 1996 lost the use of his left arm after a vicious home invasion. But he therapied his ass off for years (and still does) and returned to performance the moment he could, to the relief of the gent's many fans and the blues circuit entire. After all, when you have a jazz guitarist father and a blues singer mother, started your first band in seventh grade, and then began touring at 17, it ain't like you're not a dyed-in-the-wool don't-get-in-my-way bluesman, now is it?
Way back when, Armstrong became the youngest player ever in Smokey Wilson's gig and soon found himself mentored by none other then the legendary Ice Man, Albert Collins, one of the fiercest players ever to mount a rostrum, a cat who practically tore his guitar apart on stage—not like a Pete Townshend but just from the intensity of his inner spirit. James, though, is more the rhythm and blues kinda cat, and Guitar Angels shows that in spades, a soulfully mellow disc that glides out of the speakers with laid-back vocals and a mournful six-string presence that croons and haunts.
That don't mean he doesn't have the boogie sitting right to hand, though. The slo-cookin' Movin' to Nashville is a smoooooth buttshake a la some of Foghat's best: you know, when they cut out the chart nonsense and got down to cases, especially in the later live output. But you'll likewise be reminded of Robert Cray's work as well. Then there's Runaway Train, an unusually stately number, to which the horn section adds measurably. Interestingly, that reverses in his do-up of The Eagles' Take it to the Limit, knocking the song perpendicular, making it sing from the mean streets rather than the Hollywood pavilions the original enshrined. It's obvious that James Armstrong, through everything in his life, never forgets where he came from.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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