I usually have an intense fight or flight reaction to opening acts that i have never heard before, which is increased exponentially when i am in a room small enough that any under-breath comments could be overheard between songs. I can rarely find anything to appreciate about these seemingly random (occasionally local) artists as i innerly triangulate between critique, ambition, and jealousy. Too self-absorbed. I could hit that note. Why can’t i be up there?
With James, i definitely did not have my typical urge to change him, ignore him, or to mentally replace him on the stage with myself. His stage presence made me think of a lithe French Stuart covering Dan Bern, which seemed somehow apropos to open a Bitch and Animal concert. During his first song, rather than bitterly wondering who would ever volunteer to listen to him, i was instead speculated on whether he shaved his arms — his perfect and smooth arms with their muscles churning hard as he pounded out major seventh chords on his guitar. Perhaps wax? How else could they get so smooth?
I didn’t love any of James’s songs individually, but on the whole he had an effect on me; not the same effect he had on Gina, Kelly, Kelly, and Kat, all of whom signed up for his mailing list. It only had one empty line on it by the time it made it to me, handily answering my own rhetorical question: That’s who’s would volunteer to listen to him.
Kat knows better than to ask me how i liked an opening act, and Gina knows me well enough to anticipate my response, so i’d like to think i gave them a pleasant surprise when i opened my mouth and said that i loved the way James used his voice. It was my second favorite thing about him after his arms (which i didn’t mention). It was lovely, a convincing baritone with ample vibrato that switched to Dylan-like whine as it got higher until it hit a Dan Bern’s sort of vocal equivalent of a cheese grater, but only for a second until he began to descend again.
The rest of the thought was, of course, which i would use in a much more convincing fashion if it belonged to me. The voice was indisputably his, though, and today’s reading of his site only proved how hard he must have worked to earn it… “James left college in the mid-1990s to write fiction. Somewhere in this murky chronology, the fiction became social, political, personal songcraft. His head full of Shakespeare, Ozu, Coppola and Bukowksi; James open staged his way through his senior year in state college.”
It goes on to detail that he feels there is a sort of innate lack of weight to what i know and occasionally love as contemporary acoustic music. I like to think the people i admire in the field, the Ani’s, Erin’s, Mulvey’s, and Bitch and Animal especially, have their own startling gravity that upsets your entire world. I’m not sure that James has found his own yet, but knowing that it is there to be possessed and manipulated is half of the step to being an arresting performer
I fled, fled so far that i didn’t talk about my own songs until conversation of James had long faded into the intermission. Well played, Mr. O’Brien.