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Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 03:30 pm

Blues ambassador James Armstrong


James Armstrong performs at Walnut Street Winery in Rochester, Fri. Sept. 28, 7 p.m. $7 advance tickets ($10 at door) are available at Recycled Records, Terry's Men’s World and True Value Hardware (Rochester).
In this day and age of ubiquitous blues, finding a genuine and pertinent purveyor of the genre can be trying. Not to say all the variations of the I-IV-V performed in various instrumental configurations don’t have a place in the field, but experiencing a true-blue bluesman, as opposed to someone playing the blues, is like finding a diamond in a pile of rocks.

One of these rare and outstanding gems recently relocated to Springfield. We now have James Armstrong, blues guitarist and songwriter extraordinaire, residing in the capital city. Armstrong’s history, a captivating and progressive tale, begins with his family upbringing in Los Angeles, Calif. Raised by a jazz guitarist father and born of a blues singing mother, James knew music as a way of living from an early age. Traveling the country by high school age with his band, the budding guitarist advanced into the deep world of the true blues through his twenties working as the youngest member of Smokey Wilson’s legendary band and spending quality blues time with Albert Collins.

After relocating to the Bay Area in the early 90s, Armstrong caught the attention of folks at the esteemed roots music label HighTone Records and released Sleeping with a Stranger to critical acclaim. Right before leaving to tour for the record, James received a nasty stab wound to his left arm during a home invasion incident that left him with permanent nerve damage and the possibility of not playing guitar again. With the encouragement of family and friends, along with a good dose of strong desire and willing faith, the musician came back to release Dark Night and once again put himself in the forefront of the contemporary blues scene.

From those dark days of wondering and struggle, Armstrong pulled “a whole new respect of the music itself,” developing a slide guitar performance style, working on his introspective songwriting and becoming a vital artist by overcoming hardship through artistic expression. The world soon recognized his gifts and in 2000, the third HighTone album Got It Goin’ On garnered two W.C. Handy Awards nominations, one for best blues guitarist and another for best song.

From there, James marched on, touring regularly, placing songs in film, performing with greats in the industry from Chaka Khan to Tommy Castro, Keb’ Mo’ to Rickie Lee Jones and generally being a genuine force and talent in the contemporary blues and soul music world. In 2011, Armstrong released Blues at the Border (Catfood Records), a tribute to an old blues player who influenced the young guitarist years ago. The acclaimed record blends folk, country, funk, rock, soul and blues influences into an amalgam of American music worthy of a place in the canon of honest and true musical expression.

If you knew none of this about James and saw him perform (Friday at Rochester’s Walnut Street Winery), you’d be thrilled. James Armstrong is a treasure not to be missed, a fully realized, mature artist, still developing and building on skills with talent and purpose. Modest and confident, challenging and secure, the singing, songwriting guitarist, known as The Ambassador of the Blues, delivers.

This weekend Springfield welcomes Donnie’s Homespun to the live music venue scene. Located in the Vinegar Hill Mall (the former Pizza Machine/Atrium area), the fully stocked bar hosts live music on an incredible stage every weekend, mixing local, regional and national acts while offering Donnie’s Homespun pizza as a culinary delight. The grand opening on Friday brings The Pimps and The Timmys to the stage with Mathien and Hotshot Sugar Force on Saturday. Upcoming big shows include Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg Oct. 8, The Wailers (of Bob Marley fame) Nov. 9 and Reverend Horton Heat Nov. 28.  

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com

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