The Hand You're Dealt — James Solberg

By Jeff Stevens

Three years after his death, the spirit of the late Luther Allison is a tangible presence throughout James Solberg's latest recording, "The Hand You're Dealt" (Ruf Records).

It's not hard to understand why Solberg can't easily shake the memory of his fellow blues guitarist and vocalist. The two men began playing together back in the 1970s and continued to collaborate until Allison's untimely death from cancer in 1997. Throughout the years, Solberg served as Allison's bandleader, guitarist and producer. He performed on many of Allison's recordings, including "Soul Fixin' Man," "Blue Streak" and "Live in Chicago."

"The Hand You're Dealt" is Solberg's second album since his friend's death. His 1998 recording, "L.A. Blues," was a tribute to Allison and a catharsis for Solberg.

Two years later, Solberg clearly hasn't left the memory of his good friend behind. The title track of the new CD, one of five original songs penned by Solberg, talks about balancing the good times with the cruel. "It's kind of late to change the rules. I guess I'll just keep on playing these blues," he sings, backed by his stinging lead guitar.

Solberg and Allison trade vocals and guitar solos on "Still Called the Blues." The song, a soulful, smoldering blues, was recorded in 1994 in Solberg's hometown, Eau Claire, Wis.

The album's theme even is reflected in the CD's cover art — the Tarot card for death is prominently displayed in the artwork.

But, as noted in the liner notes written by Art Tipaldi, the Death card signifies transition, renewal, change and rebirth. Even if Solberg is grieving for the loss of his friend, songs like the hard-rocking "Build You a Castle" and "What's Comin' Down" show an unflagging spirit.

Many of Solberg's originals are uptempo, guitar-driven blues, although he also tosses in a good measure of R&B and Memphis soul. Although forceful, Solberg usually resists the temptation to overplay, unlike many of the less experienced guitarists on the scene.

Solberg shows his good taste with his choice of cover songs, including a gospel song, "I'm Goin' Home," a Louis Jordan standard, "Buzz Me," and a Bobby Bland classic, "Members Only."

"The Hand You're Dealt" is Solberg's third solo record. The others were the aforementioned "L.A. Blues" and his solo debut, "See That My Grave is Kept Clean."

As Luther Allison's longtime sideman, Solberg spent much of his career out of the spotlight. With his solid effort on "The Hand You're Dealt," Solberg may finally emerge from the shadow of his longtime friend.

The Hand You're Dealt

James Solberg

Label: Ruf Records

Release date: May 2000

Song titles
1. Build You A Castle (James Solberg)
2. Buzz Me (F. Moore, Danny Baxter)
3. The Hand You're Dealt (Solberg)
4. I'm Goin' Home (Roy Tyler, Joe Thomas)
5. When's the Last Time (Solberg)
6. Members Only (Larry Duane Addison)
7. What's Comin' Down (Solberg)
8. Still Called the Blues (Earl Forest, George Henry Jackson, Robert Alton Miller)
9. You Got Me Knockin' (Jim Liban and Short Stuff)
10. Ain't It Hard (Solberg)
11. Funky Woman (R. Brantley and Short Stuff)
12. Perfect Strangers (Larry Dunn)

Main performers

James Solberg, vocal and guitars
Dave Smith, bass
Ernest Williamson, keyboard
Lloyd Anderson, drums
Luther Allison, vocal and guitars
Charlie Bingham, guitar
Robb Stupka, drums
Ken Faltinsen, bass
Mike Vlahakis, keyboards
Jaqueline Johnson, Jacquelyn Reddick, William Brown, Bertram Brown, background vocals


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