James Dixon is clearly very proud of his heritage. He’s grown up in the South West of England with blues and folk music, found rock music for himself and, since the age of 5 when he first strummed his axe, he has been a scholar of the sound. Since that tender age he has studied his music, taken it around the world and now ended up back in Cornwall where, over a two year period, he has recorded his debut LP ‘Trespassing Light’ with the production support of Sam and James Kent. There’s a hell of a lot of time, effort and emotional commitment gone into this record then and, on balance, it’s worth it. He has produced a fine, raw, powerful and melodic collection of 12 mostly self-penned bluesy-folk (folky-blues?) songs.
On first look / listen it would be easy to pigeonhole him, in a lazy reductive way, as the embodiment of the trustafarian hippie cliché with his homemade cigar-box guitar, travels round Australasia and Bali, serious locks and white-boy folky take on blues. Put the judgemental pre-conceptions aside though and it becomes clear that there is more to him than that. The locks are now shorn and there is a serious, career-minded intent behind this record that makes it much more than some mildly interesting diversion.
Dixon styles himself as ‘singer, songwriter, guitarist and storyteller’ and doesn’t shy away from genre classifications either; self-identifying his music as firmly grounded in the Folk and Blues traditions. Nothing new there then for someone operating as part of (unimaginatively shoehorned into?) the Americana genre. What is a touch unusual perhaps is the direction from which he arrived at this musical home. His journey here came via an early love of Zep, Hendryx and Neil Young; whose ‘Unplugged’ songbook came with his first guitar as a gift from the then 11 year old’s dad. So we understand that this early music had strong folk and blues roots but it rocked hard as well, something which continues to be a legacy in his sound today.
His bio lays claim to influences from a veritable who’s who of folk and blues heavyweights from Jansch and Paxton to Johnson and Waters and to be fair it’s not a bad indication of the sound we get here; tagged with the rock of course. Indeed, what feels like a cornerstone song on the lp, the 6 minute ‘You Took My Man’, plays like a manifesto, connecting his influences with his current musical approach in a very explicit way. Namechecking the drumming of John Bonham, the guitar playing of Lowell George and the singing and performing of Chris Connell. Dixon’s own love of performance is evident throughout, which may seem an unusual position for a solo, acoustic record but the inclusion of spoken song introductions, sampled ‘journalistic’ voice interludes, and wild crowd applause all attest to it. This focus on performance may come from an early obsession with Talking Heads seminal Stop Making Sense concert movie and David Byrne’s devotion to performing, which encouraged his vision that “the ‘show’ is more important than the ‘single’”.
Dixon uses a mix of acoustic and signature cigar box guitars, stompbox, foot tambourine and vocals to deliver an almost full band sound. His playing is red in tooth and claw but never unkempt or thoughtless. He deploys his variety of guitars with a combination of both folky fingerstyle picking and bluesy slide. As an out and proud ‘non-player’ I wouldn’t want to show off my lack of technical knowledge trying to ascribe certain sounds to specific instruments but what is unmistakable is the power and resonance of the playing. Take for example the gloriously distorted noise he wrenches from his instrument, an almost ‘garage’ sound, on ‘Song for Josh’ and ‘Evil Woman Blues’.
As Dixon himself has noted he “plays music which is rough and unpolished and tries to tell the story within each song”. Whilst it is not possible to discern common concerns or themes amongst the lyrics his songs, which he claims are all “true stories”, focus on the largely small and personal rather than big political or social picture. Giving us details of the immediate small scale interactions between individuals that we are all largely missing now.
His voice works here too. It doesn’t have a great range or tone and isn’t expressively soulful or beautiful but it is big and powerful, though it can also be gentle when needed. Dixon sings with a resonance and an interesting way of phrasing his vocals that engages, pulling the listener in. Listen to ‘Sentinel’ for the spare phrasing that is almost bleakly in tune with the sparse musical setting.
It’s no surprise that, given the sound and setting of this record, Dixon has been invited to support Seasick Steve on his next European jaunt. There’s enough that connects the two artists in both tone and style to make it a perfect match. At the beginning of this next stage of his journey, James Dixon has crafted an excellent calling card, one that introduces him as a spirited, thoughtful and exuberant new(ish) voice in the UK Americana firmament and one which we will keep a close eye on to see where goes next.