By Don Sikorski
James Solberg plays the blues. Pure and simple; no flashy gimmicks. Despite a proven ability to successfully incorporate spoonfuls of rock, soul, or gospel into his musical recipe, the Northern Wisconsin native has avoided the temptation of crossover styles and following the latest musical trend. Blues is his thing. As a youngster, Solberg would listen to the radio for inspiration. He developed an early passion for anything bluesy, locking into the sounds of soon-to-be legendary musicians like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and B.B. King. By the time he was growing up as a teenager in Chicago, Solberg was sitting on stage with some of the top talent around, defining his chops and learning all of the tools of the trade despite no formal training on the instrument. Those many years of professional musicianship were highlighted by his accompaniment to the late, great Luther Allison. Allison passed away from lung cancer in the fall of 1997, and Solberg has valiantly carried on playing music in that very same Allison tradition. He has logged upwards of 300 dates per year, traveling the country and playing his own brand of music developed deep from within the soul.
James Solberg’s music can best be categorized as “heavily rooted” American rock. And although his sound is creative and powerful in its delivery, Solberg himself downplays the uniqueness of his music. “It’s from the delta; from Memphis…..or from Chicago,” Solberg explains. “No matter who is playing it, it all comes from the same place.” Now Solberg hits the road armed with brand new material. “Real Time” is Solberg’s latest recording effort, his fifth solo release overall and first on the Blues Eclipse label. And although music is what James Solberg does for a living, the material on “Real Time” didn’t come easy for him. “As a writer, I was road-blocked at the time,” explains Solberg of his creative struggles. “I guess I was having a senior moment,” he joked. “So I drove out to the mountains, booked a hotel room, and wrote a few songs.” In terms of the final product on “Real Time”, Solberg now reflects back on how things landed the way they did. “I try to record things I haven’t heard before. I had some weird ideas in my brain, but it’s not the same as what is on the record.”
What is on the record is some terrific blues music. James Solberg and his band are two-time winners of the prestigious W.C. Handy award for “Blues Band of the Year”. But at the top of Solberg’s musical resume is his lengthy stint with Allison (“the first and last blues guy on Motown Records” as Solberg claims). It was those years supporting one of the all-time great blues guitarists that elevated Solberg clearly above your every-day average player. “Early on, it was an education,” says Solberg of his experiences of playing guitar with Allison since 1973. “He had a wealth of knowledge of every possible style of music. He was such an immediate performer; it was all for the moment.” Solberg guitar sounds incorporates Allison’s influences, mixed with styles reminiscent of great blues players like Roy Buchanan and Albert Collins. He avoids the common trap of jamming a million notes into every fill, instead choosing to pick his spots in delivering an emotional, creative guitar tone that fits comfortably into place.
Despite lyrics on “Real Time” of wanting “the rock and roll lifestyle but singing the blues”, James Solberg seems more than content with his chosen genre of music. “It was never a conscious decision,” says Solberg of his choice of musical styles. “It’s all I’ve ever done and all I ever will do”. Solberg has also adjusted well to the lifestyle and the demands that go along with it. “I definitely like playing live,” explains Solberg. “And I try to treat the studio with that same respect of playing in front of a live audience. I like to capture it in two takes or less or I won’t do it. I don’t like to be over-produced.” Solberg has also realized some recent success as a producer himself. “I especially like producing other people,” Solberg explains. “I really enjoy it. Producing myself, well, that’s another story,” laughs Solberg of his producing duties on “Real Time”.
James Solberg is one of the most respected musicians in the blues world today. He and his band, consisting of Allen Kirk on drums (known for his stints with the likes of Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells), long time band mate Larry “Third Degree” Byrne (“a real traditional Hammond B-3 player”), and new bass player Scott Southerland from Des Moines, Iowa (“an incredible bass player”), will headline the Cookin’ At McCooks II Summer Music Festival at McCooks Beach in Niantic on Saturday, July 17th. The festival is scheduled from 3:00pm until 9:00pm. Johnny James and his band will perform their brand of Chicago-style blues, followed by E.C. Scott and her soulful blues band. Solberg and his band will close the show, concluded by a fireworks display as son as the late note is played. The event is sponsored by Tumbleweeds and the East Lyme Committee and is part of an all day festival in town. Contact Tumbleweeds at (860) 739-9018 for more information. Don’t miss this chance to see one of the best blues guitar players around performing right in your very back yard.