Contra Costa Times (California)
By Andrew Gilbert, Times Correspondent
Dylan changed James’ life
Fiddler/vocalist almost gave up on her music until tour with the legend
Millions of people can say that they’ve been touched by Bob Dylan’s music, but how many can claim that Dylan himself changed the course of their life?
For fiddler/vocalist Elana James, Dylan’s intercession came at a crucial moment, just as her longtime band fell apart and she faced the unexpected prospect of building a solo career. As a founding member of the hard swinging trio Hot Club of Cowtown, James (who was then known as Elana Fremerman) had spent the past decade honing a vast repertoire of tunes drawing from pre-World War II musical styles such as the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, Delta blues and the irresistible Western swing of Bob Wills.
With seven albums and constant touring, the Hot Club had gained an avid following by 2004, when Dylan hired the band as an opening act. But when her Hot Club co-founder, guitarist Whit Smith, suddenly announced he was leaving to pursue his own career last year, James was caught off-guard and even considered giving up music. “I had no idea what I was going to do,” said James, who performs with her new band the Continental Two at the Freight & Salvage on Sunday, and as part of a double bill with Trailer Park Rangers at San Francisco’s Hotel Utah on April 20. “I was thinking, it’s not too late to go to law school.”
In a simple twist of fate, only days after Smith’s departure, James received an offer to join Dylan’s band for a winter tour. The offer bolstered her confidence, and the experience of playing next to Dylan night after night gave her a window into an expansive musical world with which she was barely acquainted.
“It was so completely different than anything I’d done before,” James said in a phone interview from her adopted hometown, Austin, Texas. “His song forms are much more contemporary and idiosyncratic, and it was challenging to get my head around that. Mostly though he’s just a really fun person to play music with. I would play these lines, maybe it was a 12- bar blues, and he would take a phrase and repeat it again and again as the dynamic would come way down. It was just an incredible education. He’d have me set up next to him, and he’d be playing harmonica right next to me, and I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m getting paid for this?'”
With her confidence renewed after the tour with Dylan, James set about recording her first album under her own name. Released last year on Snarf Records, “Elana James” is a joyous romp that builds on her Hot Club foundation. With her bright, sassy vocals in the foreground, James delivers half a dozen original songs, including the stomping opener “Twenty-Four Hours a Day.” She also tips her bow to Dylan with a lovely rendition of “One More Night” and displays her strong feeling for classic jazz with Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and a poignant version of the Eubie Blake/Andy Razaf standard “Memories of You.”
In an interesting twist, James is touring with a trio featuring bassist Beau Sample and her former Hot Club comrade Smith. While she was hurt by Smith’s sudden departure, she realized that their musical connection was strong enough that she didn’t want to damage her music out of anger.
“The truth is, you only live once,” James said. “We play really well together, and that’s the most important thing. I had to ask myself, ‘Who makes me have the most fun and sound the best?’ and the answer is Whit.”
James and Smith first got together in the mid-’90s when she placed an ad in the Village Voice looking for musical collaborators. Smith was already a big jazz guitar fan, and was just getting into Hank Williams and other country music greats. “I’d been playing in a cowboy band in Colorado on a ranch,” James said. “What’s so great about that is it’s simple and very pure music. It comes out of a very simple way of life, surviving and working with animals. By definition it’s relaxed and reflective and lonesome.”
They performed as a duo for about a year in San Diego, and moved to Austin in 1997. While the Hot Club of Cowtown went through several bass players, Jake Erwin lasted the longest, and he anchors the band’s last album, 2003’s “Continental Stomp” (HighTone Records). While it was often pegged as a retro combo, the Hot Cub was anything but preservationist, bringing a thoroughly contemporary sensibility to its acoustic music. Now James is doing the same thing, but she’s the one running the show.
“We’ve already made a lot of new fans,” James said. “It’s a different vibe when there’s a girl playing fiddle singing her own songs, rather than as part of a Western swing revivalist trio, which was ready to make me gag. I’ve got a lot more leeway, and it’s great to be viewed in a broader context.”