Here in Babylon
Widely acclaimed pianist and vocalist Teresa James is back with her killer band for her tenth album, Here in Babylon, coming about a year a half since her previous release, Bonafide. Teresa will probably remind you of Bonnie Raitt but listen again. James has a rawer, gutsier sound. And, for the record, count Raitt as one of Teresa’s admirers. A few of her bandmates play with Teresa on occasion. Musically, she might remind you of more of Delbert McClinton, as she creates a gumbo of roots, blues, gospel and soul. Not coincidentally she has been a staple on Delbert’s Sandy Beaches Cruise for the past 16 years.
This album leans as much toward roots as blues, due to the influence of drummer Jay Bellerose (T-Bone Burnett, Robert Plant) in whose studio the album was recorded. Tony Braunagel has been the main drummer on previous James projects, although to be accurate, Bellerose and Jim Christie participated last time out on select tracks.
James originally hails from Houston, but she and her band, Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps, have become a fixture in the L.A. area for the past three decades. In fact, if you visit her website and view the alumni who have played in her band, it’s a veritable who’s who of L.A. musicians. These are mostly original songs written by her prolific songwriting partner, co-producer and bassist, Terry Wilson. The Rhythm Tramps are: guitarist Billy Watts, keyboardist Mike Finnigan, drummer Bellerose, Wilson, James, and the two-piece horn section of saxophonist Joe Sublett and trumpeter Darrell Leonard augmented by additional background singers.
Finnigan’s B3 and James’ Wurlitzer combine on the opener, the soul tune “I Know I Ain’t Been So Perfect.” Bellerose’s drums and Watts’ slide the politically charged funky title track. “Give Me a Holler” has a NOLA feel replete with horns while “Head Up, Heart Open” channels Memphis R&B. The tempo recedes to a mere hush as James proves chanteuse on “I Keep Drifting Away.” “Ground Zero” retells the mythic Robert Johnson crossroads story with a few new twists and features some stunning guitar from Watts. “Hold On” has a Motown feel.
On the album’s standout track James pays homage to the late Gregg Allman with the heartfelt “The Day the Blues Came to Call.” Not to neglect her Texas honky tonk roots, the band revs up for “I Gotta Roll.” West Coast swing, with Leonard’s trumpet prominent, colors “You Had to Bring That Up.” James reveals her gospel side, complete with a backing choir on “21st Century Man” and closes in joyous style on “Find Me a Bar.” This is what makes James so compelling – her mix of so many styles, all well performed.
Teresa’s got a deep, soulful feel for this music. Her vocals are naturally strong and free of pretension. Maybe Levon Helm said it best, “Teresa James is a true original. When she sings, you can feel it in your bones.”
- Jim Hynes