James Blood Ulmer Septet with Vernon Reid
Centro Zo, Catania, Italy
March 18, 2006

At the end of the 70s, when a "new waver" New York was about to (re)discover the "beefheartian blues" (and for Captain Beefheart it was one of the many times his music was rediscovered), James Blood Ulmer was one of the figures appearing on the scene: a not-terribly-in-the-fashion type of guitar (a Gibson Byrdland semiacoustic), a look a bit like "a bluesman from the Delta", some impeccable credentials - above all, his "harmolodic" relationship with Ornette Coleman. The oldest article in my possession which talks about Ulmer sees his music in the key of blues/Hendrix mixed with funk and jazz: penned by Chip Stern, it appeared in the US magazine Musician at the end of that decade, with the title James Blood Ulmer and Punk Jazz. Not much later, an article by Lester Bangs titled The Punk-Jazz Connection (with pictures of Joseph Bowie in his Defunkt days, and also David Thomas, Captain Beefheart, James Chance, Lydia Lunch) suggested a(n im)possible mix. Ulmer then played with some names destined to be famous like Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake and David Murray, recorded well-known albums like Tales Of Captain Black and Are You Glad To Be In America?, signed with Rough Trade and Columbia, and became, in time, a kind of a classic - not for the mass audience, though.

James Blood Ulmer Septet with Vernon Reid? I'll go, obviously - and even when I see that the venue when the concert will be held is Centro Zo (they co-produced the concert, which is part of the Festival by the Provincia di Catania called EtnaFest), I buy the ticket just the same. (For once, things will be ok, quite different from the concert by Bobby Previte & Coalition Of The Willing which I had seen (and heard!) just three days earlier; it sounds like this time they worked hard on the sound.) Lots of instruments on stage: acoustic piano, Fender electric piano (the concert program attempts to deceive us by writing "wurlitzer") and a synthetic organ by Korg, all played with versatility and skill by Leon Gruembaum; an electric violin (played through a wha-wha Cry Baby pedal), which works as a nice lead counterpoint to Ulmer, played by Charles Burnham; mostly "rhythmic", but sometimes subtle, drums by Aubrey Dayle; nice blues harp by David Barnes, though sometimes he plays a bit too much for the crowd; on bass, Mark Peterson, good (something I didn't like: Peterson played a Fender Jazz Bass always in the high-mid register, but since the group sound was basically all in the high and high-mid region, there was nothing that grounded the sound; I'd say that a nice Precision would have worked a lot better). It's a line-up that's mostly the same as the one featured on the album Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, produced by Vernon Reid. Ulmer plays a guitar that to me looked like a semiacoustic Gibson ES-175 through a Roland Jazz Chorus 120, his typical "thumb approach" like a mutant Wes Montgomery, now clean, now distorted. Vernon Reid uses a classic set-up: a Hamer guitar through a Marshall (quite obviously, a 100w head + a 4 x 12 cabinet).

The result? A nice concert. Ulmer sang well, with a nice version of Evil by Howlin' Wolf and some pieces written by Willie Dixon (Spoonful, Little Red Rooster and I Love The Life I Live, that just a few days ago I had listened to in the version recorded by Mose Allison), and he showed nice force and imagination in his solos. Harp, violin and keyboard were OK. Vernon Reid is the unknown variable: when he forgets about being Vernon Reid it works, though it didn't make me crazy; when he remembers he's Vernon Reid, all things go wrong: very fast scales which here sound totally out of place, and which clash with Ulmer's somewhat "rural" approach. I have to confess that Vernon Reid's behaviour - he was obviously also working as a kind of MC - looked a bit strange to me, like when he invited the audience to clap in time (in a style like "clap yo' hands, y'all") and also when he orchestrated an ending to the concert quite bad in its being contrived, with the musicians - who were playing an easy melody - going away one by one, till the harmonica player was the only one left on stage.

What was missing? First, a pinch of something a bit unexpected - somehow it appeared as we were attending a Las Vegas show starring the old Ray Charles. Then, I would have liked the blues to sound a bit less well-mannered. More real fire would have been appreciated - I'm not asking for a Mike Bloomfield fresh out of the Fillmore, just for somebody like Derek Trucks. People were generally very happy, with a few fortysomethings "out of their heads - with measure" in a "real bluesy Saturday night that we won't so easily forget ". Lotsa people: no available seats in the legendary "folding chairs" sector, plus people here and there, plus some added chairs, which brings the total to about: 350.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006

CloudsandClocks.net | March 31, 2006