Joshua James at Whelans Upstairs on October 25th 2012
Two weeks ago, I’d never heard of Joshua James. The Salt Lake City-based folk-rock vocalist had never set foot on our shores either, but a single listen to the heartily recommended ‘From The Top Of Williamette Mountain’, due out in just over a week, is enough to convince that the man who’s part musician, part sustainable-living farmer is something a bit special. Throw in a vast array of Dylan and Neil Young comparisons and we can safely hazard a guess that today’s tentative first steps into the Irish market won’t be his last.
In truth, while James’ voice offers an undoubted top-quality high amid the sparse soundscapes of his timid musical backdrop, he’s just that bit more cheesy than those impressive comparisons might suggest. That’s not altogether a bad thing: James’ style is accessible, but lacks the more ludicrous lyrical angles that tend to pop up in some folk singers back catalogues. Instead we’re treated to clever hidden depths, not least in the subtle, off-hand afflictions of the likes of ‘Queen Of The City’ and ‘Williamette Mtn’.
Live, James has essentially, a traditional rock band set up, allowing his melancholy vocal to do the talking. Offering only the lightest of interaction in a couple of short stories on the songs origins. Not least amongst those is a sensitive dedication of ‘Doctor, Oh Doctor’ to the difficulty of being away from his wife during long tours, is a moment that’s fraught with emotion. The set is lifted almost entirely from the unreleased newcomer though – a benefit of playing to a crowd relatively unfamiliar with your sound, perhaps – and sees James fly, buck and meditate about the microphone, as his band take a sublime but slightly uninvolved back seat.
There are plenty of musical highlights here, listened to in pin drop silence by an impressive debut turnout. Slow-building, soaring, soul-bearing album-opener ‘Mystic’ could be an advert for James’ voice, while ‘Doctor, Oh Doctor’ gives credence to those Dylan comparisons, affecting the legends twang if not his hoarseness, and addressing words to James’ absent wife. ‘Ghost In The Town’, a hollow and defiant reminiscence of times past, is another that kicks into a meandering vocally-brilliant live chorus.
At times the words are jarringly brilliant, like in Sister, which opens with the line “So long be careful on your way back home, I found your suicide note in you right coat pocket”, or in ‘Wolves’, where there’s an open-hearted angle to the line “My mother will say ‘why son?’, my father, he won‘t say nothing, and we will all avoid explaining that darkness inside my heart”. The album cover, instead, simply states ‘I am not real’ on its inside.
It’s hard not to be swept up in Joshua James’ tales. In the finest tradition of Irish music, he’s a storyteller, a downhearted character who seems to hide an optimism beneath all his worries and modern-world dissatisfaction. Even when things are – just occasionally – a touch on the cheesy side, this is the kind of stuff that speaks to the heart in its spiritual exploration. It’s touching, involved and eminently likeable, but best of all, it’s quite brilliantly and complexly fully formed. Let’s hope someone rushes him back.