Releasing March 4 2016, “Pledge Drive” highlights the mastery of disparate musical styles and compelling lyrics that Blind Lemon Pledge (aka James Byfield) brings to his surprising combination of songs and sounds. Says Pledge “The studio is my canvas and the music is my paint. This album gave me a chance to explore some of the harder edged songs in my repertoire. Sometimes, I guess I’m a rocker at heart.” Employing compelling percussion, electric guitars, keyboards, harmonica, saxophone and driving bass, Blind Lemon Pledge has fashioned 12 songs that propel the listener on a toe-tapping journey through American music.
The album opens with ‘Run John Run’ which uses the famous Bo Diddley beat to tell the story of the infamous Night Riders in the post-bellum South. Says Pledge, “I always wanted to write a song using Bo’s beat. Bo has always been one of my music heroes, and I needed to find the right theme for the music. After watching the Poitier/Belafonte Western “Buck and the Preacher,” I had the sudden inspiration for something that would fit the drive of the beat.” The track is anchored with a dense percussive sound reminiscent of New Orleans and the Caribbean, and features a driving bass and single guitar.
‘Moon Madness,’ the second track, shifts gears into a down and dirty blues about a stalker, using a 7th chord phrasing that gives it a minor and spooky quality. For this track, Pledge uses a raspy, guttural tone that creates a character to match the theme of the song. “I first developed this voice and character back in High School. After trying a couple of takes, I realized the character would be perfect for the song.” Accompanying him on this song is harmonica whiz Jenny Reed, who has some impressive creds of her own, including appearances on the TV shows “Fame” and “Cagney and Lacey”. Says Pledge, “Although I play harp myself, I decided I needed someone who could really pull out all the stops. And Jenny was just that musician.”
‘Nag Nag Nag’ pushes the album into overdrive with a saxophone-driven R&B romp reminiscent of a cross between Louie Jordan and Allen Toussaint. Oldies specialist Rick LeCompte is the featured saxophone player on this track, while BLP created the backing sax, trombone and trumpet tracks in the studio. Says Pledge, “On my last album, I had a track that could have really used some horns. This time around I decided to go for it. Rick is one of my oldest friends and I was glad I could get him to add his talents to the mix.” ‘Cora Lee’ brings a sad and melancholy air to the proceedings with a plaintive cry of lost love. Pledge combines a mixture of acoustic percussion including a cajon on the verses with a more traditional trap set on the bridge. The solo is taken by a flute, adding yet another layer to the BLP sound.
The album shifts gears yet again with the complex tempos of ‘Birmingham Walk,’ a densely harmonic, distinctly Southern riff on the Civil Rights Movement. With a nod to the rhythms of Little Feat, BLP explores themes of protest, rectification and Jim Crow laws, all within the bounds of a classic 3+ minute song. A driving dual guitar accompaniment adds urgency to the lyrics. Next up is the second saxophone riff on ‘5 Weeks of Heaven,’ a classic rocker that will remind the listener of Bobby Keyes era Rolling Stones songs. Anchored by a compelling guitar riff and powered by the sax, this song drives relentlessly forward. “An old friend of mine once described a love affair he had as ‘five weeks of heaven.’ Being the shameless songwriter that I am, I appropriated the line for this song,” Pledge jokes.
Jenny Reed’s fine harp playing returns for ‘She Broke the Ten Commandments,’ a dark song of heartbreak, with odd religious overtones. The rhythm riff is driven by BLP’s critically acclaimed slide guitar work, recalling an electrified version of a Son House riff. Once again BLP employs a variation on his alternate voice, lending an almost AC/DC sound to the song.
The second third of the album is bookended with another soft and mellow blues song, whose structure brings to mind the blues/country recordings of Ray Charles. ‘You Can’t Get There From Here’ features electric piano, bass, drums and acoustic guitar showcased in a smoky jazz arrangement.
The last third of the album begins with ‘O Katrina,’ a slide guitar driven take on the destructive hurricane of ten years ago. Written from the point of view of someone who decides to ride the hurricane out, ‘O Katrina’ is a mini-drama about the choices and risks that so many of the survivors were subjected to in that devastation. Solid electric guitar and percussion help bring this vision to life.
‘You Know You Really Got the Blues’ was originally inspired by the jazz-based blues of the earliest years, such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Says Pledge, “I love the chordal structure of those songs as well as the word play and ideas. Although the accompaniment doesn’t actually sound like that era, that’s where I got the idea for the music.” This song features a good selection of BLP’s impressive slide guitar playing. ‘Kokomo’ pulls out all the stops to move the album to yet another style, this one perhaps unique to the Blind Lemon Pledge vision. A succinctly told story about office rage and gun control, ‘Kokomo’ uses a unique repeating chord pattern over a series of short verses that drive the story forward. The solo combines two slide guitars and a honking organ to create a jarring comment on the tragic events in the song.
The album finishes with the BLP classic ‘Railroad Mama.’ Going back to his jug band and country blues roots, Blind Lemon Pledge uses washtub bass, rhythm spoons and washboard, banjo and harmonica to recreate the old fashioned sound of the Memphis jug bands, he loves so much. “I have recorded this track a couple of times in the past, and this time I think I finally got it right. I wanted to end the album with a surprise track, no one would be expecting.” The inclusion of the jug band tune highlights the diversity of styles that have been featured throughout the album.
With a signature diversity of styles, expertly crafted lyrics, and a panoply of musical sounds, Blind Lemon Pledge has created another masterpiece of Blues and Americana. Hop on aboard and let “Pledge Drive” take you on a musical journey.