Maine has its share of state treasures, and musician Samuel James is most certainly one of them.
James is a Portland-based blues and roots singer-songwriter and guitarist originally from Biddeford. His parents bought him a drum kit when he was 5 years old, and he’s been playing music ever since. When he was 8, his father, Mike deFayette, a world-class jazz pianist, started teaching James how to play the piano, and then a year later the trombone.
You can see James live at Johnson Hall in Gardiner on Saturday night, and he also has a show at Frontier in Brunswick on Feb. 22.
James, who turned 40 a few weeks ago, didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 24. Since then, he’s released six full-length albums, most recently “Already Home Recordings Vol.1” in 2017.
James is working on Vol. 2 and is also collaborating on some tunes with Max Garcia Conover, so here’s hoping both of these projects come to fruition this year.
He’s also working on a book and writes for The Bollard and Black Girl in Maine Media. His blog on Black Girl in Maine is a must-read if you want to try to begin to truly understand racism. James’ perspective is informed, in part, by having grown up in the whitest state in the nation, where he was called the N-word on multiple occasions. His writings on racism are unflinching, vital and hugely important.
Also the creator of the popular web series “Kitty Critic,” during which musicians perform for other people’s cats, James is the youngest of a long line of performers that includes dancers, storytellers, choir singers, porch-stomping guitar thumpers and a session-jazz pianist, dating back to the 1890s. And when you listen to him play, you can tell that there’s the blood of many informing his music. But the talent is all his.
James said these days his live shows include a 12-string, single-cone resonator, banjo and a gorgeous National Guitar. I’ve never heard anything quite like the sound of James playing a guitar, and it’s no easy task to describe – something like an intricate dance that can go from waltz to whirling dervish and back again. With thumps, bangs and lightning fast fingers, James’ playing is transfixing, and if he just played guitar, that would be enough to make him a notable musician.
But James is also a songwriter with a knack for storytelling and has a voice that’s equal parts sand, soul and depth. His musical travels have taken him all over the U.S. and Europe, as well as to Canada, Russia and Turkey.
James’ life hasn’t been easy. During a 2014 appearance on NPR’s “The Moth” at the State Theatre, he told the story “Jenny,” about what it was like bouncing around several homes after his parents’ drinking resulted in him ending up in foster care. His mother, Faith, passed away when he was 12, and his only friend was a girl named Jenny whom he met on the school bus. Jenny’s family invited James to live with them when he was 14, after his case worker moved him to a shelter because the abuse at his foster home at the time was so bad. While he was living with Jenny and her family, James and his father restored their relationship. James’ father died at the end of 2016. Sam and Jenny remain friends.
The first place James ever performed live was at Blue in Portland in 2006, and this evolved into a residency he shares with fellow musician D. Gross on the third Friday of every month, barring scheduling conflicts. During their shows, one of them starts a song of his choosing, then the other has to play a song that connects in a meaningful way to what was just played. The result? “Lots of funny stories and a completely different show every single time,” said James.
I asked James to name one of his favorite musicians, and he responded with Shirley Griffith, the late Delta blues singer and guitarist, born in 1907. “He’s incredible. His songwriting isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard,” James said. He added that Griffith’s guitar phrases sound like a slow-moving rover, which amplifies the emotion of the lyrics. “He was impossibly ahead of his time.”
As I strongly suggest that you see him live, here’s one last thing about James: I think it’s gonna be a long, long time till there’s a better cover out there of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” than the one on his 2012 “And for the Dark Road Ahead.”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Johnson Hall, 280 Water St., Gardiner
TICKETS & INFO: johnsonhall.org