Tuesday, April 19, 2011
My first intro to Possessed By Paul James was sometime in early '07 at an H.B.E showcase at the Hole In The Wall in Austin Texas. I didn't know much about him and the only notion I had of the quality of the show I would get came in the wide eyed and nodding instruction of friends familiar with his work to "just watch".
I took my usual preferred spectating stance up front and to the left as he took a seat on a chair on a wood platform on the stage surrounded by an unconventional setup of an old amp, various instruments and a battered tambourine rigged at his feet. A decent crowd had accumulated, hungry and shifting with anticipation. He settled his fiddle and picked up a bow so frayed it looked as if a razor had been taken to it sending it's hairs, thick with rosin, to curl in all directions. Without introduction he pulled out a few stark and rolling notes. His knees jerked. a slight semi rhythmic spasm at first then a pulling and pounding of his foot into the wood and rigged tambourine creating a full and layered thump that built into a pulse that he let hang in the air between the increasingly frenetic fiddle arrangement. He craned his neck and reeled, gritting and gnashing his teeth akin to the effects of some kind of religious revival. He let out seemingly involuntary yips and yells and sharp exclamations as the music and rhythm welled up and out into the crowd. He burst into the hook and I was taken by the rawness and clarity of his vocals and keenly original and intimate lyrical content. Throughout the set he switched between banjo, fiddle, and guitar hammering out a catalog of intense, emotionally charged songs. This was the real deal and possessed was a good word for it. This wasn't just a show this was a 40 minute battle cry against heartache and the high cost of living.
It is clear through his albums and performances that Possessed by Paul James is his music. His talent for viscerally projecting the weight of living makes him an unapologetic conduit of his own device. There is nothing contrived or forced. He seems to be continually and with great humility 'working it out' through his songs. The resulting progress is illustrated in the way his tone has altered in the time between his first self titled release and his most recent endeavor "feed the family".
In an earlier performance just before the birth of his son, I witnessed as he exscorscized the stress he was under almost alarmingly. He explained to the Audience he would have to make it quick as his pregnant wife was waiting in the van. He delivered the usual set but towards the end he loosened and unraveled and started chanting and wailing " I've got babies on my mind! I've got babies on my mind!" Men were stomping and shaking their fists in response to the rhythm and women were dancing and swinging their hips to what appeared to me to be a nervous breakdown. Good show to be sure but this this was serious. This was a stranger wrestling his struggle to the ground in front of a "mostly" live audience. The struggle to pay his bills and his dues, to straddle lives without losing footing on either side of a duplicitous nature and the struggle as a man to bring new life into the world in uncertain times.
Feed the family is a 12 track anthem to the general growth and maturity gained through sacrifice and reflection. Kinder versions of 'Color of my bloody nose' and 'Old man's souls' don't retreat from their original power but relax their grip as if reconciled by time. Tracks like 'Older in my body' We welcome you home' and 'fathers and sons' are all shining testaments to the best of earnest song writing. The album in its entirety seems to end a chapter in a life on a triumphant note and as a fan I eagerly await the next installments from this truly unique and irreplaceable artist.
In an excerpt from Faulkner lies a fitting sentiment, " Not for glory and least of all for profit , but to create out of the materials of the human spirit that which did not exist before." I just got word that PPJ bagged best alternative country artist at the independent music awards. Goes to show a little glory is inevitable when the material is lightning in a bottle and as for the latter, the lines blur in the expectation of profit when its time to "feed the family". TAB
Guthrie said a man should know his country like the back of his hand. Some people spend their whole lives in the towns they grew up in, nothing wrong with that. Some people spend most of their lives traveling for their jobs from chain hotel to chain hotel strip mall to strip mall and don't have a story about the American experience that i'd like to hear. Other folks may harbor a stifled wander lust as they are beaten into their respective corners of the world in a gridlock to pay their rent and feed their children.
Times are tough all over and the upper hand it seems could care less about the old American dream only bending to the bottom line. There was a time that great detail and care was placed into American design. Architecture, cars, even the way communities settled themselves into the landscape had a modicum of pride and sensibility. You see that less and less anymore in the pre-fab slap together cheap labor replacements of destroyed land marks and shut down mom n' pops. At this rate all we have, is all we have left. Chunks of our culture are eroded in a white wash of ''progression'' and I'm afraid of what America will mean to our children's children. Thankfully we have an archive of music and literature to tell our stories. An archive built by crusaders who weather they meant to or not put a permanent stamp on the people and places that otherwise may have remained an undocumented flicker. Our history and our time now is to important to lose to subjection and white knuckle survival. There are plenty of examples through popular music of where things went wrong that are widely available and slurped up like the last dance club cocktail by consumers who, I can only hope , just don't know any better but when it comes to the good American hard luck hittin hard tour driven troubadour , like George says , "whose gonna fill their shoes?''
Tom Vandenavond is a contemporary ghost with a wisdom in his music that exceeds his years. His sound embodies the nature of solitary travel and the inevitable connections made from a life on the road. He has torn through his midwest roots and created an auditory imprint of the highways and byways, truck stops and roadsides of the afforded white line spectacles of the American construct. If you listen you can hear a long haul on the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental highway. Where the day glow over exposure of Los Angeles meets the dessert of palm springs. Red rocks and mesa tops before Phoenix and Tucson. The cumbersome nothingness of West Texas where a man can can only bide his time with his thoughts and am radio. El Paso with a glimpse of the third world at the boarder of Juarez. San Antonio and New Mexico heavy with Spanish and Native American charm. A brief pass through future city Houston and the descent into the thick air of southern Louisiana stretching over the 35 along the Pontchartrain into the heart of Cajun Country. Mississippi's Jackson County into the Panhandle. These are just a few of the back drops that bleed their influence into a catalog of work as eclectic as the land itself. You don't need to visit the hotel lafayette or have a hard south texas christmas to identify , any amount of living should draw you in.
He seems to take his notes from the rambling Jack Elliot handbook a bit of a maverick he's also not afraid of the odd straight job painting signs or slingin beer. He is part John Prine and a bit of Mark twain. He has written some of the saddest songs i've ever heard but most are coupled with a wink and a nod. He's like Rory Callahan in the Texan or Chuck Conners in the Riflemen with a guitar, A squint in his eye weather from the desert sun or the smokey respite of any bar U.S.A, you get the idea he knows something we don't and no matter how rough it gets there is comfort for the stock that he'll pull the ace from his sleeve and more or less come out on top.
Tom is a great act to catch when he flies solo but their is a great deal of magic in the company he keeps on his albums. The unparalleled talents of the Weary boys, Good luck Thrift Store, and members of the genre decimating Larry and his Flask (the Say Hey Kids when they play with Tom) have all thrown their efforts into his recordings. Each album has it's own feel and with his latest release "Oughta Know Me By Now" it's clear he can't make a bad album. Pick up the latest release but while your at it grab the other three and get to know your country. TAB