The quiet understated intensity that suffuses ‘High Times & Bad Weather’ from Leo James has to be heard. It comes through a musical weave that’s rich and vivid, filled with brilliant aural colour. This album makes no overt fuss, creates no waves for attention but offers a selection of radiant songs from an accomplished singer-songwriter. With a deft touch on lap-steel and dobro guitars, Leo blends folk, blues and country into 13 entrancing self-penned tracks. To partly explain that ‘touch’ it’s worth noting he studied slide guitar with masters like Philip Henry, and Hindustani classical musician Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya. To fully understand, you have to listen.
Leo writes thoughtful lyrics that explore personal memories, examine futures, set scenes and create illustrations. Delivered with gentle, almost seductive breathy vocals, he sets his songs across a finely detailed tapestry of elaborate finger picking and scintillating lap steel guitar. From the languid tones of songs like ‘Together We Rise’ and ‘Lavender’ with their enveloping lyrical and musical imagery, through the harder edged realisation of ‘Cruel North Wind’, to the evocative ‘White Flag’ and haunting ‘Nervous Disposition’ you're captivated.
Playing alongside Leo James (lap steel guitar, guitar, dobro, harmonica, vocals) on ‘High Times and Bad Weather’ is Sid Goldsmith (double bass, vocals) – who also recorded and mixed the album. There’s something about this album that engages. The lyrics. The musicianship. And an indefinable essence that makes you want to listen, and when you do you’ll find something rather special.
UK Folk Music
An accomplished lap steel slide guitarist who’s songs reflect an Appalachian / Blues / Bluegrass feel.
Bristol Roots managed to avoid the bad weather, and had a high old time recently, in conversation with Bristol singer and guitar player, Leo James. As engaging as he is talented, Leo has a new record out right now. We were lucky enough to chat to him about the album, his playing and singing and more, and you can check out our exclusive videos below. Before that though, we review his new album, High Times & Bad Weather.
Leo James is a man of experience. Having been singing and playing (in Leo’s case guitar, in many forms, dobro and harmonica), plus writing his own songs, since his late teens, he very much brings forward his influences of folk, blues and country, plus dashes of soul and jazz, into what his press describes as a “soulful mix of no nonsense honest songwriting…“. This is an entirely fitting and worthy description.
But that’s not all. His many years of live experience, be it at festivals, in pubs or clubs, as part of bands or as a solo singer, have been distilled into his latest work, the new album High Times & Bad Weather.
The album, written and arranged by Leo and recorded and mixed by friend and collaborator Sid Goldsmith (who also contributes bass and backing vocals), sees Leo expound on guitar, lap steel, dobro and harmonica as he shows his style, his influences and his commitment to his songs and his music.
Right from the opening chords of the opening song, Together We Rise, the rolling and complex nature of James’ guitar playing is juxtaposed with the simple and natural way he goes about his playing – the result being a joyous blend of John Martyn-meets-Martin Simpson, and something else, something personal.
In Leo's songwriting, he manages to gets himself across easily, as he comments on life and love in a heartfelt, entirely universal manner. His singing is delicate yet strong, his voice somehow creeping up on you, always genuinely fitting with his stories. The songs on High Times… are sweet, natural, and lovely.
The rolling, diving guitar of Bright Lights builds and drops like an ocean, with Goldsmith’s bass adding in sympathetically. James’ approach almost ‘explains’ what the song is about and what he is saying, in a very effective storytelling style. Shots of bluesharp are flowing and evocative, in a powerful package of song, singer and situation.
The album keeps developing, and keeps getting better. Lavender is an almost lullaby-like tribute to a loved one, with a rolling, blues-like delivery. The soul of the song, and its playing, gets inside you, with its balance of strong guitar and sweet, childlike words.
In some places on High Times…, like on Grains Of Sand for example, the album takes on somewhat of a floaty, 60s feel (think the aforementioned Martyn, Nick Drake or Paul Simon) – in contrast with it more bluesey numbers. However Leo squares it, his playing and singing exhibit timing, grace, speed, and balance. Take White Flag, with its deep guitar intro, or the effective twin guitar and backing vocals of Isobel, and its dedication to a child, and you’ll find that Hard Times… is an album of both looking back, and forward, to and from life events. The song itself is joyous and infecting, and at the pay off moment, we see an artist in his full light.
If’s isolated dobro intro works perfectly, with the track developing out, in, up and down with a pulsing beat dropping into its vocals. Nervous Disposition is another highlight, again with James using an ‘explanatory’ angle in his writing and singing. This way feels natural and right, his tales of life and expectation show a deep understanding of the human condition – here Leo is talking about things that have happened to him.
Time has a slight amount more swing in its playing – a style which sees Leo's guitar show a more expansive side, as it swings around the melody. Lyrically, the song tells of past regrets, now resolved, as ‘Every man falls to his knees, in the face of love’.
There is peace, love and understanding in both the music and the words of Strong. The accompaniment slows down, stops, and lifts back up, but the power of Leo's playing makes the song straightforward and never forced – the same is true of the singing. Here, the writer explains all that he loves about his loved one, and here is perhaps the heart of the album, alongside the way in which he manages to explain more about life itself. When it’s done this well, who could ask for more?
High Times closes with the deep, resounding arrangement of Through Thick And Thin. Here, and throughout the set, Leo sounds like his influences, yet remains resolutely himself. The soft, lilting songs add to and counterbalance the harder, more driving tunes, and there is love and honesty in them all.