By Walter Tunis, contributing music writer
Elana James liked being prepared. Whether it was with the classical violin training of her youth or the daring fiddle expression that fueled the crisp swing and jazz accents of the now-disbanded Hot Club of Cowtown, James didn’t like leaving music to chance.
Then she met Bob Dylan.
First, she toured as an opening act with her Hot Club mates on a tour of minor league baseball stadiums that visited Applebee’s Park in 2004. But when Hot Club dissolved later that year, James was recruited by Dylan for a spring tour as his first female band member in three decades (the last was Scarlet Rivera, also a fiddler).
So here was the exciting quandary she faced: How does a player with sterling technical command on the fiddle, a stylist highly versed in Western swing lyricism, work with an iconic songwriter infamous for giving his most prized folk songs a blunt, scrappy and often impromptu electric makeover onstage?
“It showed that my version of being prepared was something I had to throw out the window,” James last week, only days before joining a new Dylan ballpark trek that returns her to Lexington on Tuesday.
“The challenge quickly became ‘What’s my role?’ and ‘How do I stay out of the way while contributing something at the same time?’ It was a finely calibrated balance, and I’m not saying I aced it. There was the thrill of being onstage with him in a band like that and playing to an audience filled with energy and anticipation. But there was also the terror of wanting to be prepared and feeling like you weren’t.”
“James’ return performance, though, is something of a re- introduction. Instead of playing with Dylan this time, she will be back in an opening-act slot. And instead of performing with Hot Club of Cowtown, she will be fronting her own band, Elana James and the Continental Two. Shoot, even her name’s different. In Hot Club, she was Elana Fremerman. When the trio disbanded in late 2004, she adopted a variation of her middle name (Jamie) for a stage name to front a new swing-jazz trio that features guitarist Luke Hill and bassist Beau Sample. But as a new independent album with the Continental Two actually features double guitars, she enlisted former Hot Club partner Whit Smith to flesh out the trio sound for the Dylan tour.”
“What an honor to be such a young act, such an unknown commodity, on a tour like this. If you can imagine how thrilling that would be, then multiply it by a thousand. That’s how thrilling this really is.”