REVIEW: Brad James’ “At Fellowship Hall” is Newly Minted Tulsa Sound

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When you think Oklahoma, you think “Red Dirt.” But Tulsa’s different. Because of its relative diversity and a historically transient population (largely due to its oil and gas deposits and the boom and bust cycles inherent with such resources), music styles from various regions have coalesced beside the Arkansas River to form the Tulsa Sound. Long a sideman in the city’s scene, Brad James is venturing out as a frontman and solo artist with the first release from the newly minted Brad James Band, At Fellowship Hall (Horton Records), and it serves as an excellent primer on what one might find on the Tulsa scene.

The lead song, “No Dress Rehearsal”, introduces the bluesy/jazzy portion of the Tulsa Sound, complete with multiple tempo changes. Lyrically, the erstwhile sidekick imparts a lesson he’s learned: “You’re the star of the show/Ain’t a lot of time to rehearse.” Later, on the more straightforward blues track “Effort”, James recalls the years of toil it took to get to this point: “I hope all the effort was worth it.” “Heather Grows” rides on a deceptively pleasant groove based on Andrea Kyle’s Hammond organ while addressing a topic close to James’ heart – children growing up with parents who struggle through addiction, He empathizes with the kids – “As if growin’ up wasn’t hard enough to do/There’s so much more this world is puttin’ you through” – but the cycle of addiction and teen pregnancy is hard to break. According to James, the “baby on the way” mentioned in the song is his goddaughter, now in her 20s.

The country and southern influences in Tulsa show up on several songs. “Hey Sara” has a distinct 70s feel, driven by James’ piano and slide, and tells the story of a country girl growing up and moving on. “Blues for Rollo” has a certain swampiness to it. And “April’s Girlfriend”, with its all-out honky tonk feel, is the most fun track on the album. It’s the same old bar story with a little twist: “I knew I had ‘til two o’clock to make her mine/Then she walked in – April’s girlfriend.” He fumes and fusses, reasons and rationalizes, all while April (and the girlfriend) remain oblivious to his very presence. During the two-minute instrumental coda, you can picture the self-described “guitar man” getting more frustrated as April and her companion exchange…pleasantries. It’s the band at its best – loose and a l’il bit greasy.

At Fellowship Hall, named for the famed Little Rock, Arkansas studio in which it was recorded, was produced by Chris Combs. Musicians on the album include James (guitar, baritone, electric sitar), Kyle (Hammond organ, vocals), Kristin Ruyle (congas, percussion, vocals), Dylan Layton (bass), Nicholas Foster (drums, vibraphone, percussion), Joe Schicke (guitar and vocal on “Effort”), Chris Combs (lap steel), Richie Lawrence (piano), Ray Bonneville (harmonica), Cary Morin (pedal steel and vocals), Celeste DiOrio (vocals), Jesse Aycock (Dobro, pedal steel, vocals), and Lauren Barth (vocals).

To download or order a copy of At Fellowship Hall: https://hortonrecords.bandcamp.com/album/brad-james-band-at-fellowship-hall

To check out the Brad James Band for yourself: https://www.bradjamesbandtulsa.com/dates

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