Elmore James holds a special place in the blues pantheon. He’s arguably not as well-known as giants like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, but his music is familiar to anyone who’s listened to any rock or blues made in the past 70 years, even if non-blues fans don’t necessarily know his name. His take on Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” produced one of music’s most iconic riffs, and if he had just come up with that, he’d be a legend. But his entire catalog is large and impressive and on Elmore’s Blues, Wayne Nicholson and John Campbelljohn take a successful crack at it, finding their own respectful takes on his classic songs.
Nicholson and Campbelljohn are Canadian blues artists, with Nicholson providing the vocals and Cambelljohn the guitar. The challenge of a project like this is how to interpret songs that obsessive fans, like your humble correspondent, treat as sacred, while not creating a note-for-note remake of his work. This is especially complex for James because many of his best-known songs are covers themselves. Nicholson and Campbelljohn seem to handle this by not overthinking things, laying down tracks that occasionally clean up some of James’ perfectly ragged edges, but also sometimes embrace James’ rawness. All while preserving their own voices.
Their artistic voices, but also Nicholson’s literal one, which has a laid-back bluesiness that distinguishes itself from James. James’ voice―which to my mind doesn’t get enough attention because of his game-changing slide work―was raw emotion: joy, anger, and sadness all co-existing within his throat. Nicholson’s voice doesn’t step on James’ toes and provides a different perspective on James’ music.
Campbelljohn’s guitar strives for more of a James sound, which makes sense because every guitar player should want to sound like James. So on “Standing at the Crossroads,” you get the familiar slide riffs, but slowed down just enough to let the song breathe a bit more than James’ version. The track evokes and honors James, but doesn’t try to perfectly replicate him. Campbelljohn is at his best on songs like “Sinful Woman,” a slow blues that begins with a faithful reproduction of James’ guitar work but that gradually morphs into his own tasty playing, with lyrical bends, charming runs, and snippets of lovely melodies.
The album also features two originals. “If I Was Blue,” sounds a lot like the blues standard “It Hurts Me Too,” which James also covered, so I thought it might be another version he had written with different lyrics. “Dancin’ with the Blues,” is a 50s rock and roll number, and while it’s a fine song, it just doesn’t sound like anything James would have recorded, making it an odd fit for the album, which is dedicated to him. However, I give Nicholson and Campbelljohn credit for not putting “Dust My Broom,” on the record and leaving that track, so associated with James, as too sacrosanct to touch.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit I listened to this album with the goal of feeling outraged, but it grabbed me immediately. Nicholson and Campbelljohn obviously aren’t trying to out-do James; they’re just having fun with some beloved songs. I came into this review thinking it’s pointless to re-cut a James song since his work can’t be improved, but having heard two talented artists work through his tracks, I’m now of the mind that anything putting more James into the universe is a good thing.
Artist: Wayne Nicholson & John Campbelljohn
Title: Elmore’s Blues
Label: Grindstone Records
Release Date: May 15, 2020
Running Time: 47:40
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*Feature image via YouTube