|James ‘Blood’ Ulmer at Cafe Oto|
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved
James ‘Blood’ Ulmer
(Cafe Oto, 8th July 2015; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
James ‘Blood’ Ulmer is a bluesman deep down. Very deep down. Yet, he is best known for his experimental, ground breaking work with Ornette Coleman, whom he met through Billy Higgins, shortly after moving to New York in 1971, and his subsequent adoption of Coleman’s unconventional Harmolodic (Harmony-Motion-Melodic) approach to his guitar playing, along with his trenchant, politicised funk.
So, expectations were slightly confounded when Ulmer delivered a taut and moving solo set of pure blues which dug way back to his South Carolina roots, even though his god-fearing family originally set him on the gospel road, not the blues. It was his Pittsburgh grandfather, whom he mentioned, and with whom he lived after high school, who gave him the space to broaden out musically.
Ulmer’s connection with the blues was anything but sentimental – it came from his core. With jangling, chiming chords and a strident delivery with trembling vocals, he evoked the blues of despair and desperation, the rolling blues of the itinerant, and directly, the electric blues of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, both of whom were name-checked. It was a hot, close night at a packed Cafe Oto, airless, muggy, adding something of the climate of the bars in the deep south which had been home to the bluesmen.
Rhythmic, bass drones ran in the background of his strained tones, blending with Ulmer’s trademark wah-wah to fill out the raw, rambling rural blues narratives. Rock Me with echoes of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, crossed with Hendrix.
Snatches of lyrics brought home the reality, still reverberating in events in South Carolina today. ‘Some of them you sacrifice to save your hide.’ ‘It’s a shame people call each other names.’
Powered, trippery runs drifted in to the Harmolodic abstract with creeping riffs rising up with the force of a hot, bubbling, volcanic spring. A grizzled edge to the slurred vocals cut through Are you Glad to be in America? until the guitar took on a soft, hurdy-gurdy tone for Ulmer to bow out with humble grace after a spellbinding one and a half hour set.