Blood Simple

James "Blood" Ulmer, on top of the world
Alan Nahigian

James "Blood" Ulmer
Hyena Records


Over the past decade or two, it has often felt as though blues is worse than dead, as if it has been lying prostrate and senile in intensive care, surrounded by a hearty circle of loved ones who, as best they can, regurgitate and pantomime the vintage essence of the music from its mid-20th century prime. There are exceptions, of course, especially among the hybrids, but most of what is classified as blues nowadays is garishly masturbatory, stultifyingly reverent, or, as the consolation prize, purveyed by honest acolytes who work hard and give the crowd its money's worth but simply lack distinctive artistry.

Birthright, by James "Blood" Ulmer, is something else again. It's a solo delta blues disc that is both intimate and epic in scope, with 10 frequently extraordinary original compositions among its dozen songs. Ulmer's acoustic guitar playing is jagged, subtle, multi-textural, and unpredictable. His vocals are tremulous, conversationally grave, and emotionally forthright. Dovetailed together--song, guitar, voice--it was a resonant and arresting thing to listen to even before New Orleans was laid to waste.

Although he is a 63-year-old black man born in South Carolina, Ulmer is hardly a classic delta blues troubadour. In 1974, he fell under the formative influence of Ornette Coleman, the genie of free-flowing jazz improvisation. Ulmer's approach to Coleman's avant-garde "harmolodics" was seared with the funk-rock squall of Hendrix, but within the roiling modulations that defined his first few (and to some still most noteworthy) records, the essence of the blues is there. Ulmer, who got his start singing gospel and then playing in bebop groups and organ-jazz combos, has been steadily circling back to those basics. His previous two discs before Birthright were overt, justifiably praised electric blues sessions with a full band.

Yet few expected Ulmer to further distill the blues down to this wizened masterpiece. Heartfelt and roughly hewn, the songs aim to be intensely personal. Even on the two covers--Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious" and the standard "Sittin' on Top of the World"--Ulmer planes away the recognizably melodic edges and emphasizes parts of the narratives in accord with the emotional mosaic of his originals. That his prevailing themes--temptation, survival, salvation--are blues staples adds to the classic feel of the disc. But the rendering of those themes is unique.

Birthright is bookended by heaven and hell, with Ulmer demanding consideration of the blues as a life-affirming force on "Take My Music Back to the Church" and fiendishly cackling as flames lick the soul on "Devil's Got to Burn." In between, the devilry of racism is addressed more directly than Leadbelly or Sleepy John Estes could have ever risked. When Ulmer croons about never living in a "White Man's Jail," it's about attitude as much as geography. His heart-warming, talking blues paean to "Geechee Joe" approvingly notes the lengths his grandfather went to so he "never had to work for the white man." And it's probably more than coincidence that Ulmer's most nimble and complex guitar instrumental on the set is titled "High Yellow," which is also a slur for a light-skinned black person.

From the slap of the slackened strings on "Love Dance Rag" to the minor-key splendor of "Where Did All the Girls Come From" to the filigreed delicacy of a handful of other songs, the breadth of Ulmer's guitar lines is a testimonial to his jazz background. But again, what matters is the synergy--the timing and shading of the picking against the delivery of the lyrics and the content of those words. Finally, especially in the realm of solo acoustic delta blues, it is about force of character. That's how and why Blood Ulmer got the blues to signify in 2005.

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