Sittin’ down at the card table of life, playin’ high stakes games with high rollers doesn’t give many chances to replay. No throwin’ ‘em in. No re-deals. No discards. Read ‘em and weep. Pull the hat brim down and play ‘em out to the end of the night. If you lose the hand, you’re broke, busted.
No matter what the cards are, playing the hand you’re dealt is a heavy responsibility. But a Tarot card spread manipulates a different game – life. The Tarot is commonly viewed as a tool for divination. A traditional reading involves a seeker, one looking for answers to personal questions. The reader lays out the cards in a specific spread and one by one, begins to interpret and weave the meaning of the seeker’s story as it unfolds. When the cards are revealed, believers must play those cards with no knowledge of the unseen forces moving them.
Too often, the image we have of Tarot cards reading is of a seedy backroom with a mysterious reader turning cards, accompanied by a gasp (!) as each one is turned. Instead of those ominous forebodings, the reading of the cards dealt can be a light to access one’s inner spirit.
Few blues guitarists have played out the Tarot hand more appropriately than James Solberg. Though the death card is prominently displayed in his spread, Death in the Tarot world symbolizes transition, renewal, change, and rebirth. Nothing describes Solberg’s creative capacity better. After years of living away from music in the 80s, he was reborn with the 1993 return to America of his guitar alter ego and dear friend, Luther Allison. For five years in the states, these two blues guitar slingers cut a Blues revival path from coast to coast. After Allison’s death in 1997 Solberg was again forced into a period of transition and recorded L.A. Blues. Now two years later Solberg epitomizes the true loss renewal meaning of that card.
The other cards peeking out also speak to James Solberg, the artist. The six of swords alludes to a passage to a higher level of consciousness. The ten of cups suggests the misfortunes that are over, a personal recovery. The Justice card is harmony and reason. The ace of cups represents perfection and bounty. The seven of cups relates to one’s over active imagination. If the Tarot spread is a mirror for one’s self, it always reflects back the hidden aspects of one’s unique awareness. That’s why these cards are especially remarkable as collective components of James’ musical life.
Solberg began his blues odyssey as a teen in Chicago during the 1960’s. Though he dropped out of school at age 15, the South and West side African-American taverns were the real schools which Solberg matriculated. “By 1969, I was sitting in and getting’ my ass kicked every night. I really came to when I stopped playing other music like jazz and rock, and just played the blues. I’m not a jazz musician. I knew to play from the heart. When I feel something, my fingertips are just tools to express what’s in my heart and not the other way round.” Two years later Solberg met Luther Allison and his cards were dealt.
Solberg’s guitar sound is packed with a clear, intense, dynamic energy which is juxtaposed with a raw, gravely voice that can pack a shout or sing out sweet and soulful. In this musical spread of the cards recorded in August 1998. Solberg brings you into his personal reading through soul gospel and rockin’ blues. His guitar and his vocals ring clear and grab deep into your soul, then lift you up and out again with faith and hope. His story becomes your own – those with which we can all relate. And just as he has you feeling your pain, he sends you dancing upon the card table in defiance and elation.
Accompanying him on his journey, Solberg enlisted Memphis producer extraordinaire, Jim Gaines, to mix in his production touch. For musicians, Solberg called upon David Smith on bass, Ernest Williamson on Keyboards and Lloyd Anderson on drums to keep the groove always in a higher level of imagination.
Solberg’s originals include the multi-layered title cut, ”The Hands You’re Dealt”, as well as “Build You A Castle”, ”When’s The Last Time”, “What’s Coming Down”, and “Ain’t It Hard”. In addition, Solberg covers the Bobby Bland classic, “Members Only”, and Louis Jordan’s jumpin’ standard “Buzz Me”. Solberg’s love of Gospel is evident on his cover of the Gospel Hummingbird’s tune “I’m Going Home”. To deepen the call and response testifyin’, he calls upon the Memphis Church Ladies and former Stax singers, William and Bertram Brown. Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful song is when Solberg and Allison team on, “It’s Still Called The Blues“. Recorded in December of 1994, long before cancer attacked Allison, the song is a reminder of the musical urgency and deep-rooted friendship they shared for over 25 years.
Damn the cards! Discard the prophesies! Exorcise the spells! Here’s to the power of a human spirit like James Solberg that looks beyond the obvious and lives by trusting his intuition.
(Senior writer for Blues Revue, also for the Boston Blues Society, Blues Connection and Metrome)
- Build You A Castle
- Buzz Me
- The Hand You’re Dealt
- I’m Going Home
- When’s The Last Time
- Members Only
- What’s Comin’ Down
- Still Called The Blues
- You Got Me Knockin’
- Ain’t It Hard
- Funky Woman
- Perfect Strangers