Review: James Blood Ulmer at Café Oto

Simon Adams goes back in time with the harmolodic master as the guitarist return to his blues roots with nods to Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters

Electric guitarist James Blood Ulmer paid a rare visit to Britain for a solo show at London’s Café Oto on Wednesday 8 July. The strutting pomp of his harmolodic prime revealed on a string of innovative solo and group albums in the 1980s has gone, as Ulmer has now completely reverted to probably what he always was at the start, an all-American bluesman, a lone guitarist for hire.

Hunching low over his guitar, with the odd mumbled introduction, he played as if sitting out on his porch step on a summer’s evening, picking out some notes and reminiscing in song. The material was pure blues, with solid nods to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters: a mix of traditional 12 bars, longer, more loosely connected pieces, and gently grooving country blues. Echoes of his experimental self are still heard in his broken, chiming chords and off-kilter interjections, but mostly this was slow, repetitive and hypnotic music that in its electric echoes brought to mind a slurred John Martyn.

He ended with his signature song, Are You Glad To Be In America?, recorded in London in 1980 for Rough Trade Records. When once it was a raw interrogation, now it is a low-key shuffler. At 75, Ulmer is now an elder statesman of the guitar, but this quiet, subdued set, while mesmeric in many ways, did reveal a musician happy to coast along on his talents.

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