In 1996 James Armstrong had only begun to make his mark as a blues artist when he was savagely assaulted in his own home; in defending himself, he lost the use of his left arm and suffered permanent nerve damage. A year earlier he had released debut album, Sleeping with a Stranger, on the HighTone label, and was being recognized as a real contender, both for his personable vocalizing and especially for his sizzling guitar work (on the title track of this, his new album, he declares, “I could play fast, wild and crazy”) in bands led by Smokey Wilson, Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner. In one of the most inspiring stories in or out of the music business, Armstrong, who had been playing since he was seven (he was the son of a jazz guitarist father and a blues singing mother), refused to give up or give in. Months upon months of rigorous rehabilitation plus the encouragement and tutelage of some of his fellow pickers—Mike Ross, Coco Montoya and Joe Louis Walker being first among equals—got him back in fighting shape (although he still can’t bend the third finger on his left hand or use his little finger), which is to say, back on stage and ultimately back in the studio, for 1998’s Dark Night and 2000’s Got It Goin’ On, both on HighTone. Eleven years would pass before he returned to the recording studio and cut Blues At the Border for Catfood Records. In a press release accompanying his new Catfood long player, Guitar Angels, he says he was surprised the powers-that-be at Catfood wanted another album from him so soon. Maybe he didn’t hear what they must have heard and what comes through on his newest long playing effort: an artist that has got it goin’ on as a singer, songwriter and, in spite of his physical limitations, as a sweet-toned guitarist who has set aside much of his “fast, wild and crazy” stylings in favor of a more soulful, richer sound, something you might expect from a man who’s had his share of trials and tribulations.
James Armstrong, ‘Guitar Angels,’ title song from his new album
He tells his story in the near-five-minute slow blues title track, explaining how “the Lord wanted to slow me down, but I didn’t listen/so He had a plan/and now I’m a two-fingered guitar playin’ man…” With a soulful female chorus cooing behind him, Armstrong explains his sense of “guitar angels” protecting him—“it might be Hendrix, or SRV, or Collins and the Kings/they will always be near/they traded strings for wings/guitar angels, looking after me…” (Note to those who are saying, “Wait—B.B. hasn’t traded in his guitar for wings yet”: James later adds, “You don’t have to be dead and gone to be an angel…”) Far from being the record’s strongest song, it does elucidate Armstrong’s resolve to soldier on through his injuries and reclaim his art and artistry, and it needed to be written. It’s not the only moment he gives over to his personal travails. The slinky, midtempo soul groove of “Healing Time” supports a touching tribute to his musician brother Norman, who passed away as James was starting Guitar Angels sessions. “We lost him too soon, this brother of mine/but now he’s gone/it’s healing time,” James sings in a repeated refrain that becomes the touchstone for the entire album, which in and of itself finds him coming to grips with his past.
James Armstrong with a live version of ‘Grandma’s Got a New Friend, at the Baltimore Blues Society, October 2013. This Armstrong original is the opening track of the artist’s new album, Guitar Angels. Posted at YouTube by beercandave.
“Coming to grips with his past” might make it sound as if Guitar Angels is dark and chilling, when in fact it has an abundance of humor (even of the salty kind) along with muscular, energetic playing (some of it by Armstrong himself, who is handling a slide quite nicely in his supposedly compromised state) and on the whole an uplifting spirit to recommend it. In fact the album kicks off with the bristling horn-driven blues shuffle “Grandma’s Got a New Friend,” Armstrong’s account of finding out about a salty granny’s latest squeeze. Guitar Angel Mike Ross’s stinging, propulsive solo leads the charge before the horns burst in ahead of Armstrong’s vocal, partly sung, partly spoken and wholly played for laughs in his mock astonishment at senior citizens’ game of love (a reference to “a little blue pill” as having magic qualities is part of the tale, referenced in his chuckling aside that the new beau “makes her happy, geriatric style”). Dan Morgan eases in on organ, the background singers (which at one point include childrens’ voices) swing the title sentiment in lively fashion and Armstrong contributes not only a bemused vocal but also some potent guitar work later in the track. The grinding “Moving to Nashville”—a splendid showcase for Armstrong’s atmospheric slide punctuations—is a seriocomic look at the virtues the man finds in Music City after relocating from New York following a fall on the ice in the dead of winter, singing “Now they tell me I’ll regret it/that I’ll return some day/I’ll get tired of the south/and the slowness of their ways/they say I’ll miss my friends/but people have no fear/it looks like pretty soon my friends will aaaalllll live here…that’s why I’m movin’, movin’ to Nashville…warm weather and music everywhere!” All in all, Armstrong’s is a far better endorsement of Nashville than anything you’ll see on the TV show of the same name. And in what has become a concert crowd pleaser already, “Saturday Night Women” is a funky, percolating ode to the peculiar charms a certain breed of gals bring to their weekend cavorting, with James’s bright vocal sounding positively admiring of their free-spirited ways.
AUDIO CLIP: from Guitar Angels, James Armstrong’s ‘Goodbye Kiss’
In the end the serious moments are the ones listeners may find most memorable. The slow churning ballad “Goodbye Kiss” is a vividly detailed, wrenching account (arguably Armstrong’s most poetic lyrics) of a fleeting affair between lovers “young and in between where they were going and where they had been,” that ends with a tender kiss and the guy leaving, never to return but with his parting words saying, “We’re all looking for happiness, but sometimes you have to settle for less.” Which is not enough to erase the memory of the lingering and, Armstrong suggests by the emotion in his voice, paralyzing final kiss. James also digs into Johnny Copeland’s “Blues Ain’t Nothin’,” a simple, sensible definition of the music as being “a woman without a man…a boy without a girl,” with a sensitive, nuanced vocal delivering the message and enhanced by the artist’s own crying guitar and Dan Ferguson’s warm organ rippling low throughout the mix before surfacing for a pointed solo near the track’s end. Jeez, our man even takes the starch out of that most soulless of groups, the Eagles, in reframing “Take It To the Limit” as a frisky blues shuffle, energizing it with an arrangement in which Rick King’s sturdy drumming underpins a judicious blend of horns, organ and guitar supporting Armstrong’s easygoing vocal and his background singers’ cool, responsive expositional parts.
It’s serious work, this Guitar Angels, befitting an artist faced with daunting challenges, looking those in the eye and refusing to be deterred by them. He doesn’t address matters of faith here, but in every aspect of his art you feel the strength of someone who has leaned on something in making himself whole again. Forget those inoperative fingers—the man’s soul is intact, and it’s a beautiful thing. Clearly, the angels listened in.