At some point in every artist’s career they take time to return to the source of their inspiration and dig deeper into that sacred space that gave them the spark to launch a thousand ideas. San Francisco-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Blind Lemon Pledge (AKA James Byfield) has produced seven albums since 2008 that have taken the prolific singer/songwriter on sonic adventures from folk to blues to jazz to the far corners of American Music. For his eighth album, “Goin’ Home,” Pledge invites us to sit with him in the parlor and enjoy some of his favorite songs. The paired-down collection, delivered with just guitar, upright bass and vocals, are an intimate house concert set of classic blues, jazzy pop standards and heartfelt folk songs from a bygone era.
Pledge opens the set with ‘I Feel Like Going Home,’ breathing life into the deep cut from the early catalog of Muddy Waters. He and his longtime bass player, Peter Grenell, set the tone for the album by milking every note for the depth, breath and nuance to be found. Pledge dives deep into the drama of the Delta Blues with his pleading vocals and mournful slide guitar, drawing inspiration for the title of the album.
The duo then takes on the jazzy standard ‘Fever,’ delivering a version that is more like the original recorded by Little Willie John, with the brusque and jagged pace rather than the slinky Rat Pack version made famous by Peggy Lee. He writes a wrong by paying tribute to the late Walter Davis, in covering his emotional slow blues ‘Come Back Baby,’ that Ray Charles erroneously took credit for on his 1954 B side recording. He stays true to the original version of J.J. Cale’s ‘Crazy Mama,’ by employing dexterous slide guitar playing and a soft subtle vocal styling. Pledge lightens the mood by comparing the virtues of his lover with a variety of confectionery delights on the Ragtime Blues, ‘Sugar Rush.’ The sparse arrangement of ‘Somebody Loan Me A Dime’ brings out the jazz elements in the beautiful chords and haunting melody from Fenton Robinson, with Pledge punctuating the bitter sweet tone of the minor key slow blues with a legato solo, acknowledging the late great Duane Allman who played on Boz Scaggs’ famous version.
Blind Lemon Pledge gets even closer to the source with a joyous ramble through ‘Big Road Blues,’ one of the most influential early Mississippi blues songs first recorded by Tommy Johnson in 1928. Grenell swings hard on a great walking bass line for a new rendition of ‘Sweet Celine’ that Pledge previously recorded on his folk album “Backwards Glance,” energizing it with a roaring twenties treatment. Pledge pays tribute to more of his heroes by rearranging the Lonnie Johnson tune ‘It’s Too Late To Cry’ employing the chord changes of the T-Bone Walker classic ‘Stormy Monday.’ An acoustic blues album wouldn’t be complete without a Robert Johnson song, so the duo obliges on an emotional cover of Johnson’s staple ‘Love In Vain.’ While the jaunty country blues, ‘I Know You Rider,’ from the Hot Tuna catalog, pays homage to the psychedelic 60’s and all the bands from his hometown of San Francisco. The tent revival finale ‘Little Black Train,’ sung a cappella as an invitational altar call closes out the set.
In the album liner notes Blind Lemon Pledge dedicates “Goin’ Home” to all the great blues musicians, whose music he has studied and is part of his life‘s mission to share it with the world. This fine recording, obviously made with love in his heart, may be his finest work to date.
Throughout his recording and performing career, Blind Lemon Pledge, aka Bay Area bluesman James Byfield, has gained critical recognition for the broad scope of his stylistic skills and for his ability to capture the essence of American Roots Music in his compositions. From blues to rock to folk with stops at Cajun and country along the way, Pledge’s music has received rave reviews for his ability to smoothly mix genres to create a unique and personal form of American Music. In 2019, he surprised and delighted critics with his first foray into an all jazz record, the nostalgic “After Hours.”
Composing his first songs at age eight, James Byfield has had a lifelong fascination with a wide range of musical genres. In his early teen years, he explored various strains of American Roots Music: country blues, jug band, zydeco, folk, country and western, etc. Simultaneously he learned to play rock and electric blues. While playing in a variety of rock bands down the years, Byfield also explored more exotic forms of music including jazz, Chinese classical music and an abiding interest in electronic music and computer recording techniques. All of these strains of music came together to create his eclectic and evocative compositional style, and to inform his studio production skills.
In 2008, following a long and honored career as a graphic designer and media producer, Byfield reconnected with his blues and Americana roots and created the musical persona Blind Lemon Pledge, releasing the album “Living My Life With the Blues” under that name, a “lift” from an old Martin Mull routine. Over the course of eight albums, Blind Lemon Pledge has earned a reputation for beautifully produced, recorded, and conceptualized albums featuring Byfield’s award-winning words and music.
While fronting an eponymously named acoustic blues quintet, Byfield continues to maintain a two-front musical career with public performance and solo records, often highlighting guest musicians. In 2019, he released an album of all jazz compositions, taking a performance back seat to a skilled quartet, while Byfield helmed the composition, producing and arranging duties.
On his new album, “Goin’ Home,” Blind Lemon Pledge once again defies expectations by releasing a sparse solo album of cover tunes ranging from deep blues to folk and traditional to contemporary tunesmiths like J.J. Cale. The album showcases Pledge’s performing skills in a blemishes-and-all stripped-down collection of the songs and styles that have inspired Pledge’s own songwriting.
Tracklist: I Feel Like Going Home ~ McKinley Morganfield | Fever ~ Eddie Cooley/John Davenport | Come Back Baby ~ Walter Davis | Crazy Mama ~ J.J. Cale | Sugar Rush ~ James Byfield | Somebody Loan Me A Dime ~ Fenton Robinson | Big Road Blues ~ Tommy Johnson | Sweet Celine ~ James Byfield | It's Too Late To Cry ~ Lonnie Johnson | Love In Vain ~ Robert Johnson | I Know You Rider ~ Traditional | Little Black Train ~ Traditional
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Blind Lemon Pledge, (3) J.J. Cale, (unknown/website).