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Jimi Jams To the Blues

James Armstrong
Get Acquainted With the Blues: On his new album, "Sleeping With a Stranger," James Armstrong backs his facile guitar playing with urban grit.

Jimi Hendrix and the Kings of the blues influenced young lion James Armstrong

By Nicky Baxter

IT'S NOT yet happy hour at JJ's Blues, but the barflies are beaming, bobbing to a blues number playing on the jukebox. It just so happens to be a cut from James Armstrong's Hightone debut, Sleeping With a Stranger. Coincidentally, the man himself just sauntered in moments before.

It takes a minute before it registers that it's his music prompting butts to twitch. A broad grin crosses Armstrong's face, but he doesn't make a big to-do about it. The guitarist is tickled by the unexpected opportunity to observe people rocking to his blues on the sly. "Hey, man, that's what it's all about; getting people to groove," he says.

Though just 32, Armstrong has lots of experience doing just that. He joined his first band at 13, performing original material exclusively. Armstrong claims that with a little chain-tugging by his jazz-guitarist father, a couple of A&R guys even stopped by to size up the group's potential--although they passed, because the young players didn't know any cover tunes.

The musician, seated at one of JJ's dozen or so dime-sized tables lined up near the front door, wears a loose-fitting T-shirt emblazoned with a constellation of tiny guitars, black denim shorts and two-tone sandals. At about 5-foot-7, and weighing somewhere in the vicinity of 130 pounds, Armstrong diverges considerably from the stereotypical big, bad, deuce-deuce-packing blues brotha.

Although he spent his early childhood in a predominately black section of L.A., Armstrong came of age in Santa Monica, a fact he is quick to point out. The guitarist has always gone his own way. For instance, in high school, while all the Nubian princes were throwing down at parties to the funk sound of the Commodores and Ohio Players, Armstrong was, more often than not, a frequent visitor to Jimi Hendrix's electric ladyland. Fact is, he was a Hendrix freak, copping the headband and black-flash gear, the desultory stoner babble, the whole persona.

"Jimi Hendrix," Armstrong readily allows, "changed my life. It was all I lived and breathed from the time I was 13 to about 15." Like a few million other budding guitarists, the teen was turned inside out by Are You Experienced? It was around this time that Armstrong and a fellow Hendrix-ocentric pal formed their first band. That the group resisted the urge to do Hendrix's music is pure Armstrong, a musician for whom riding someone else's jock is simply not in the cards.

Only after he'd established his own identity as a player did Armstrong feel comfortable paying tribute to the brilliant Seattle southpaw. Currently, he includes at least one Jimi jam per set, usually "Hey, Joe." It goes without saying that Armstrong does it his way.

IT WAS the rebel in Armstrong that narrowly deprived us of a singular string-bender. It was his dad, he says, who insisted that his 9-year-old son study music theory on guitar. "See, I didn't want to play guitar at first," he explains, "because that's what my dad did, and I wanted to do just the opposite. You know how kids are."

The senior Armstrong won out. The bluesman remembers the moment of enlightenment: "I was sitting on the couch just strumming and I hit a couple of chords, and it hit me--'Hey! I like this.' "

Listening to Sleeping With a Stranger, it's evident that Armstrong still likes stroking his guitar. The session, his first for Oakland's Hightone label, is fairly representative of the musician's method. These finely crafted tunes, all but one of which he co-wrote, don't stray far from traditional themes: hard times, hardhearted women and the (really) odd hard-core social commentary.

Predictably, comparisons between Robert Cray and Armstrong have been bandied about by blues "experts" ever since the latter began gaining national exposure. And, in fact, they are both relatively young, gifted and black bluesmen. Both are unapologetically postmodern performers, incorporating elements of soul and R&B with the occasional nod to rock.

If there are any similarities, they can be explained by the simple fact that the musicians have been influenced by some of the same musicians: the Kings, B.B., Albert and Freddie. Armstrong was particularly enamored of the last. "I heard so much of Albert and B.B.," he says in between sips from a Coke. "Freddie was fresh."

And as he'd disclosed earlier, the urban grit of those Bobby Bland records his father played around the house when Armstrong was a child have also been duly absorbed. When all is said, written and done, however, the Southern Californian is, to repeat, nobody's man but his own.

A facile guitarist with a flair for tossing off killer filler runs, Armstrong doesn't attempt to bowl listeners over with speed-racer runs or studio-originated subterfuge. Armstrong bumps a myriad of flavors on Stranger, from the easy shuffle of "From Time to Time" on down to the accurately titled "Hard, Hard Blues."

WE'RE LOUNGING in Armstrong's van, a cushy vehicle that looks large enough to seat a small army. Armstrong tells what he swears is a true story about the time Jimi Hendrix clone-meister Randy Hansen landed right in his lap, literally. Blond tresses fanned out across a surprised Armstrong's legs; Hansen freaks crowded around, trying to figure out what had happened.

Armstrong laughs heartily as he recalls the incident. Appetites are whetted, and more gossip, reams of it, is required. Armstrong is buttonholed about rumors that he's played with a squadron of superpowers, blues and pop. Armstrong confirms having gigged with the likes of Big Joe Turner, Sam Taylor and Albert Collins. Even Rickie Lee Jones. Fine. So what were they really like? The guitarist's eyes narrow to slits, and his jaw tenses menacingly. Message received; we move on.

On the subject of the new album, Armstrong perks up. "I can't wait to say enough about Hightone and [label boss] Bruce Bromberg and especially Robert Mercer [Armstrong's manager]. I'm really pleased with the way it came out. The musicianship is good; the songwriting is really high quality. I think the material will translate well in performance."

Armstrong's shows are all about raising rumps off bar stools, but he considers himself a well-rounded performer. "Expect a lot of humor, [and] a little showmanship, too," he says. "I just try to get people to dance and have a good time."

James Armstrong plays Friday (Sept. 20) at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara. Call for ticket information. (408/243-6441)

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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