|The harsh rattle of work-gang chants, the lilting blues of a New Orleans speakeasy, the biting rock of a Southern roadhouse, the quick percussion of a Latin combo, the haunting slide of a Delta holler, the touching romanticism of heartfelt ballads, Jump Jive and American Songbook styles all combine in a tasty gumbo that is “Evangeline,” the latest solo album from San Francisco singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Blind Lemon Pledge. (All instruments are arranged and played by BLP aka James Byfield.)
Re-releasing April 2018, Blind Lemon Pledge displays deft thematic skills in a surprisingly diverse array of styles, all anchored down with his wordsmithing talents and melodic gifts. Says Byfield, “I wanted to do an album that really captured the different influences that have gone into my songwriting. My concept was to hone each arrangement to capture the feeling of the variety of genres.” Listening to the album is like taking a tour through America’s roots music legacy with overtones of deep Southern blues, Hoagy Carmichael swing, and almost Byrds-like melodicism.
Working from his Bay Area studio, Blind Lemon Pledge fronts an eponymously-named performing band, while maintaining a separate branch of his career with a string of solo album releases featuring a variety of side musicians. Along the way he has garnered international critical recognition and airplay, a batch of Best Song awards, and seven slots on the first-round Grammy ballots. With “Evangeline”, Blind Lemon Pledge hopes to reach across musical genres and find a new audience for his unique blend of blues and Americana styles.
The album opens with ‘Buley’s Farm’ an acoustic field holler with a cigar box guitar backing. Byfield comments “I have always loved the sound of those old John Lomax chain gang recordings. And I wanted to do a modern take on the genre while still keeping the sound and feel of the old recordings.”
Very quickly, the album shifts gears and moves into ‘Jennie Bell,’ a folk ballad which continues some of the themes introduced in the first song, while hinting at the variety of styles that are set to come throughout the album. ‘Brimstone Joe,’ a dark and devil-tinged blues with a decidedly New Orleans feel comes next, leading, after a long fade, into ‘Midnight Assignation,’ a roadhouse rocker with a mean slide guitar sound reminiscent of early Allman Brothers. The first four songs create a mini song cycle reflecting the movement of blues from the country to the city.
As the album progresses we are treated to ‘Go Jump The Willie’ – Jump Jive a la Louis Jordan; a salsa tinged trip to Puerto Rico in ‘Language Of Love;’ a Cole Porterish ‘Ham And Eggs’; ‘How Can I Still Love You’ – a jazz/blues number reminiscent of Mose Allison and a Byrds-like folk rock ballad with ‘You Had Me At Goodbye.’ The album ends in a musical bookend with another roots number, the title song ‘Evangeline.’ Gliding along on a sinewy bottleneck guitar, this track echoes the country blues of Son House and other early pioneers of the genre…and it provides a fitting end to this American music journey.
Blind Lemon Pledge, aka Bay Area bluesman James Byfield, continues to surprise critics with the wide range of his musical styles and skills. From blues to rock to jazz to folk with stops at Cajun and country along the way, Pledge’s music has received rave reviews about his ability to smoothly cover and mix genres to create a unique and personal form of American Music. With his latest album “Evangeline,” Blind Lemon Pledge once again demonstrates the eclectic melting pot of sounds that has pleased his fans and critics.
Byfield has a lifelong love of music and penned his first song at age eight, launching his ongoing fascination with the magic synergy between melody and lyrics. In his early teens, he discovered a world of great music through the twist of his radio dial. The pre-WWII country blues, including the great recordings of his stage-namesake Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Skip James and others had a huge influence on his early musical development; while he also absorbed an influencing mix of rock, folk, country, jug band, zydeco and other genres.
In high school, the young musician joined his boomer contemporaries in the 60’s rock explosion. Over the years, he played in a variety of bands, as well as finding time to explore more exotic forms of music including jazz, a five-year stint studying Chinese classical music and an abiding interest in electronic music and computer recording techniques. At one point, testing his compositional skills, he created the first ever Rock Music Mass under the aegis of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Ushering in the use of modern rock music in a liturgical setting, it received national press and was performed throughout California.
In 2008, following a long and honored career as a graphics designer and media producer, Byfield reconnected with his blues and Americana roots and created the musical persona Blind Lemon Pledge, releasing the album “Living My Life With The Blues” under that name. This first Pledge album, a mixture of original songs and blues classics, was primarily aimed at friends and family. However, Byfield soon found an unexpected market through the power of the internet, allowing him to gain international radio play and a warm critical reception in the blues community. Through a series of recordings and performances, Byfield grew into the name Blind Lemon Pledge, trademarking it in 2015.
While fronting an eponymously-named acoustic blues quintet, Byfield continues to maintain a two-front musical career with public performance and solo records that often feature guest musicians. His albums have received international airplay and much positive critical recognition. And his prolific output of original songs has won several awards and nominations. In 2017, he released his 6th album, “Backwoods Glance,” a foray into the folk and country roots of his youth.