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Red in Tooth and Claw

by Nick Aldridge / 27.10.2011

I first saw Andy Jamieson opening for Guy Buttery a couple of years ago, and I was surprised. He was so damn good! The sound was bluesy and country and soulful. I’d only ever seen a guy play a guitar on his lap like that in the camp, sleazy old Patrick Swayze movie, Roadhouse where blind, mullet-wearing Canadian bluesman Jeff Healey did a little cameo (and an overblown 80s rock-blues soundtrack) and here was this young, clean-cut, sincere guy, looking like a Calvin Klein model and doing all kinds of rootsy pyrotechnics while sitting down and picking out the sounds like an Slovenian zither player.

Obviously, there are a bunch of cool lap steel guitarists around at the moment, most notably, Xavier Rudd, Ben Harper and John Butler, but being a downloader, not a purchaser of music these days, I’d never actually seen any of these blokes playing the thing!

What struck me most at that gig, besides the incredible lightness and dexterity of his handling of the strings, was the feeling that Andy was trying to do so many things he was obviously good at, but he wasn’t giving any of them enough attention.

Now, I’m happy to report that all that creativity seems to be finding a much cleaner line. Reincarnated as Andrew James and working with drummer James van Minnen (the Steady Tiger), all the talent is still there, but now those sliding notes country-blues grooves and world-aware rhythms are delivered with deceptive simplicity, leaving it sounding raw, yet soulful and subtle.

The collaboration with drummer James van Minnen is one of two musicians ready to explore a whole range of interesting country-bluesy, earthy folk-funk sounds without it ever feeling cluttered. There are moments on this album that are straight out of the early 70s, with simple/complex grooves like a bass heavy, latter-day John Martyn while others sound more like a laidback John Butler Trio.

If there’s a criticism it’s that it’s too referential. Andrew James often sound like their heroes. To some that may be a problem. Back in the day, in a world not so taken with the cult of youth and instant gratification, this would be called an ‘apprenticeship’, paying dues and showing respect. It seems that Andrew James and the Steady Tiger are on a long path. Having guides and mentors on the path is good. Respecting and emulating your heroes can lead to becoming a truly unique, fully evolved master of your craft. But only if you don’t get stuck there.

Andrew James
Image © lovemadevisible.co.za

But the deeper you get into the album, the more they start to sound like themselves. It’s like they throw down all their influences up front and then slowly and subtly draw you in and give you a little glimpse of their world.

There’s a word that comes from old school jazz, ‘woodshedding’. When a musician has mastered the way his teachers, friends and contemporaries play, has a meltdown, gets his heartbroken on a number of different levels and then goes back to the farm, locks himself in the woodshed and plays the sounds in his head until its empty and only his true voice remains, the sound in his heart. Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, even Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, all the great masters have to go through this process.

On Red in Tooth and Claw Andrew James and the Steady Tiger show a lot of promise of what’s to come. But, the path to mastery is long and lonely and there are lots of dead-ends and false starts along the way, especially in a South African music scene defined by a dire lack of resources and opportunity. How they deal with these obstacles in pursuit of their music will invariably define them. But it may take a broken heart to crack open and reveal their true gifts.

– Download half the album here for free, gratis and Mahala.

– Buy the full album here.

*Opening image © Amor Coetzee.

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