Further inside one of the best local albums of the year
A few weeks back I wrote a piece on the new album by James Leg, Blood on the Keys. In it, I gave the obligatory nod to his background material and only wound up with enough space to address a few of the tracks but promised to revisit the album in the weeks leading up to his return to Chattanooga (for one night only) after his extended six-month tour of Europe. The time has come, the show is right around the corner, and you need to know why you should be there.
I’ve already touched on four tracks in the previous article; the ballsy “Human Lawn Dart”, the frenetic “Hugging the Line”, “St. Michel Shuffle” which is surely haunted by the ghost of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and “Tao Te Leg” which I consider to be the signature (although not the titular) track of the album. That leaves six more tracks, all lovingly crafted, all knocking it out of the park, every time.
“Mighty Man” is both raw and minimalist blues, similar to ZZ Top at the top of their game in the early seventies. Don’t roll your eyes, children. If the radio hits are all you know, you’ve never really heard ZZ Top or Billy Gibbons, the man Hendrix dubbed, “the next hottest guitar player.” That Leg captures some of that flavor in his own work is a firm indicator that here is a man who owns the blues.
“I’ll Take It” is a change of pace from the earlier tracks on the album. Gentle, wistful, laid-back blues that evokes classic Motown with a quasi-gospel sound that almost makes me want to find religion, at least whatever religion Leg is peddling. The raspy vocals, soothing organ and tasty piano riffs gracefully impart soul to the most white-bread among us, if only for four minutes and fourteen seconds.
“Ain’t You Hungry” is another one of those tunes where I feel Leg is sharing some commonalities with a musician I reference all too often, Tom Waits. It’s true, I mention the man more than I should, but there’s a reason. Ask me my favorite band and I couldn’t give you less than a dozen answers. Ask me my favorite singer/songwriter and it’s the same, I can’t name just one. Ask me my favorite musician over all of all time and there is only one answer, Waits. Love him or hate him, the man is a genius and when I say that another musician reminds me of him, it is meant as the highest praise I have to offer.
Leg certainly shares some growling vocal qualities with Waits, as well as his mastery of the piano, but the greatest comparison is his ability to deconstruct and then rearrange a piece in unexpected but brilliant ways. I said it before, this is blues, but it isn’t a standard blues album. Leg makes use of effects, instrumentation and arrangements that are simply unexpected and yet so beautifully combined that he breathes new life in to a genre that so many less talented musicians have practically beaten to death. It is in this way more than any other that Leg reminds me of my favorite musician of all time and why I think it’s a comparison worth making.
“Dogjaw” is just a marvelous upbeat little blues tune that seems like a respectful tip of the hat to John Lee Hooker. If the song doesn’t lead to involuntary toe-tapping and head-bobbing, you may well be a lizard person and the music of the hu-MANS is beyond your ken.
Good lord, “Blood on the Keys,” the title track to this album, is so soulful, so moving, it ought to come with a glass of rye whiskey and a cigarette. In a way, it does, albeit sonically. There’s no doubt that Leg chose wisely in making this the title track because while the rest of the album showcases his range and phenomenal talent for composition, this is the one that seems to emanate straight from the heart and soul of the man himself.
To bookend the album, perhaps to sum up what the whole thing is about, Leg ends with “Should Have Been Home with You,” which brings in to play everything that came before it on the album. The combination of the purely traditional with the altogether unexpected is, I think, the key to his genius. For all his prodigious talent as a player, it is his ear for composition and arrangement that puts him in a league all his own.
Hear these tracks live, Oct. 17th at JJ’s Bohemia. It’s a Monday night show, but it’s worth doing whatever you have to do to get there as Leg (known to his hometown friends as John Myers of course) will be joined by the nigh-legendary Mark “Porkchop” Holder and MPH as well as Dirty Deep, all the way from France.
It’s hard to say if and when this combination of pure talent will be under the same roof again. Missing them this time around would be a mistake.