Roadhouse album review: Blind Lemon Pledge polishes off “A Satchel Full of Blues”

Blind Lemon Pledge“A Satchel Full of Blues” (OFEH Records, July 26)

When James Byfield decided to give up his day job to march to a real drummer in 2008, he thought it would be fun to create an album of blues designed to be shared with family and friends. To increase the fun, he created a performance character he thought would be in keeping with his love of old-time blues.

That was the birth of Blind Lemon Pledge.

Here’s how Byfield/Pledge (should I call him Mr. Pledge?) explained that fortuitous creation as part of an extensive interview with Michael Limnios last year:

“I invented the persona of an old bluesman, patterned after the greats like Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, and of course Blind Lemon Jefferson. I thought the character was somebody I could “inhabit” to create a setting for doing the old style blues I love so much.

“When I was thinking what to name this character I remembered a routine by the comedian Martin Mull who invented the character Blind Lemon Pledge (a pun on Blind Lemon Jefferson) who was specifically a white bluesman. It was both and homage and a satire on bluesmen, which fit my music perfectly. So for the project, which I originally conceived as a “one-off”, I adopted the name and invented a whole back story with I included on the album and on the website I created.”

Now, 13 years and nine albums later, the prolific San Francisco Bay-area singer/songwriter and roots-music maestro offers up “A Satchel Full of Blues,” a delightful set of eleven originals and one old-gold standard (“Alberta”), all filled with the spirit of great old blues, and all delivered by the now 13-year-old prodigy, Blind Lemon Pledge. (I have to assume that in blues years, Pledge is actually much, much older.)

But the main thing here is not the character, but the music — which has plenty of character. It’s kind of a laid-back session, not entirely acoustic, but with a similar feel. Byfield’s vocal style tends toward the soft-spoken, as in the two opening tracks — “Wrong Side of the Blues” and “If Beale Street Was a Woman” (which is where you’ll find the line that became the album title — “a satchel full of blues.”) But if you listen to the lyrical content, you’ll find that his words carry their own intensity, a nice counterpoint to his deceptively soft voice.

“Heart So Cruel,” “Teacher, Teacher” and “Detour Blues” lope along with a rhythmic, meet-me-on-the-highway feel, each with its own story to tell.

“Black-Eyed Susie” turns up the musical intensity a level or two with some crackling interplay between slide and harp, and slightly salacious wordplay about Susie herself.

“I Killed the King of the Blues” is a novel exploration of the stories surrounding the death of the legendary Robert Johnson.

The hoarsely whispered, starkly styled closer, “Death Don’t Ask Permission,” is a slide-driven ode that echoes Son House but with Byfield’s own fatalism at its dark heart. Its grimly drawn sentiment demands the burn of some 100 proof whiskey, neat, because “death don’t come convenient when he comes….”

There’s much more fine music than that, of course. Listen to it all. Then go back into Byfield’s catalog and check out some of his uniquely styled earlier music. It’s well worth the journey. Blind Lemon Pledge is more than a cute nom de blues.


Leftover thoughts:

In the album notes, Byfield thanks an intriguing shortlist of songwriters he admires. Imagine the variety of inspiration they offered: Gene Autry, Willie Dixon, Randy Newman, Mose Allison and Hoagy Carmichael.

My apologies for the headline pun. I’m sure it’s not all that original, but I was completely unable to resist. It’s the exact opposite of writer’s block.

Here’s a live video of one of the more unusual tracks, “I Killed the King of the Blues”:

Tracklist:

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