Last Night: James "Blood" Ulmer at the Colony Theatre

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James Blood Ulmer

October 20, 2007

The Colony Theatre, Miami Beach

Better Than: A back alley brawl between jazz and blues.

The Review: Back when I first moved in New York, one of the greatest musical pleasures I had was catching James Blood Ulmer get all "avant-gutbucket" at a dingy little Theatre called Squat. The cat, interminably regal even then, had been first among royals such as Ornette Coleman, Art Blakey, and Ronald Shannon Jackson, and would weave some of the most cacophonic stringwork in the kingdom of free jazz. It was adroit, it was possessed, and it was surprising – and it opened my ears to a whole new way of listening to the world.

So it was with great anticipation – and even greater pleasure – that I got to catch the cat last night at The Colony in Tigertail Productions' latest booking coup.

But though the master remains immensely free-wheeling on the fretboard, his flurry is now steeped in another even older tradition: the blues.

Seated on a low-slung stool all by his lonesome, Blood began the evening with a triptych about Katrina and the hole it tore in the soul of the Big Easy – and in our hearts. Here we heard the wind rip, felt the rain bruise, and touched the pain. But Ulmer wasn’t crying the blues on behalf of a catastrophe; he was using the blues to represent the mad he feels in catastrophe’s aftermath.

And to be sure his is some stirful, mournful, meaningful mad. Ulmer’s voice dips from low growl to high holler, while his fingers flay a sermon of surge, even in the wake of weep. In just three songs the man managed to encompass both a terrible storm, and a terrible storming.

When he was joined onstage by bassist Mark Peterson and drummer Aubrey Dayle, Blood’s mad got boiling – then it got even. Working from a repertoire that stretched from Son House to John Lee Hooker, “Hey Joe” to “Little Red Rooster,” Ulmer and his trio drove the blues down the dirty back crossroad that leads straight to our secret spot, the place where all we have hidden becomes revealed.

And unburdened. Blues at its root is about unburdening the soul from the trials and tribulations of a hard life, Ulmer knows this, and he uses the tradition to his great good advantage. But it was when he stood and faced off against the band during “Babytalk” that the true transformation took place, for it was then that Blood unburdened the blues. -- John Hood

Personal Bias: I was raised between the city and the swamp, so urban muggy suits me fine.

Random Detail: Blood sports a very fine pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.

By the Way: Ulmer’s latest Bad Blood In The City: The Piety Street Sessions is out now from Hyena.

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