Alfred James is a musician who takes a stand — literally. The cellist front-man of the Alfred James Band is described in his press kit “as the only cellist in the world playing a black, five-string carbon fiber cello — standing up!”
The technique originates from when James originally played and sang seated, requiring complicated rigging. “I strapped on the cello because it was much easier to sing,” he says in a phone interview. “It’s really that simple. It took me a little bit of time to re-learn my cello techniques — about a year really working at it. For a long time I could play standing up, then I would sit down and couldn’t play sitting down any more. Now I’m pretty facile with being able to sit and stand. It was quite a learning process.”
After performing on a conventional four-string wood cello, his music teacher, Gloria de Pasquale of the Philadelphia Orchestra, persuaded him to purchase a custom made five-string (adding a high E) from colleague Luis Leguia (luisandclark.com) of the Boston Symphony. James favors the “bold and brassy” sound of the carbon fiber live in contrast to the warmer wood cello. “I’ve gone to great lengths with my technical side and my cello rig to make it sound appropriate,” he says.
The Alfred James Band is enjoying a steadily accelerating career, and recently took the opening slot of the June 4 Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival (Vienna Teng, another Appel performer, was profiled in the June 2 issue of U.S.1). They will perform on Saturday, July 5, in Princeton, as part of the five-hour, multi-band Sounds for S.A.V.E. Benefit at Pettronello Gardens at Community Park North. The concert is being sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton and S.A.V.E spokesman Dan Cooley, who co-hosts Dan and Rich Radio (DanandRichRadio.com) with Rich Palmeros.
At the concert S.A.V.E. (savehomelessanimals.org), a nonprofit shelter and animal welfare organization at 900 Herrontown Road, is requesting donations of various pet-related items such as dog chew bones, cat litter, and dog beds.
Cooley created the idea of a benefit with Princeton acoustic artist Sarah Donner, who is the founder of Indie Night at Griggstown Pavilion (U.S. 1 January 10, 2007). Since James had appeared as a guest and played an acoustic set on Cooley and Palmeros’ show for four hours on November 28, 2007, he and Donner were natural choices to headline a benefit concert. The free concert also features the Arthur Colombino Band, Like Trains & Taxis, and Ralph Colombino of the Remnants. There is also a S.A.V.E. II concert scheduled Saturday, August 23, again with Sarah Donner, along with the Remnants, Mouth of Wilson, Joy Simone, and Todd Alsup.
James was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to cellist and surgeon Edward Goodrich and the late Alfreda Verratti Goodrich, a lawyer and dean of St. Johns College, Santa Fe. After his father suffered a stroke when James was five, the family relocated to Ardmore, outside of Philadelphia, to be closer to his mother’s family. James later developed deep ties to the Princeton community after graduating from the Hun school in 1994, where his major passion was rowing. There, his team set the all-time record in the lightweight category in the Stotesbury Regatta, the largest high school regatta in the world. James, the sculling captain, continued rowing at Connecticut College in New London (Class of 1998) and also rowed for the U.S. national team, achieving second place in world trials three years in a row.
His passion for music blossomed in 2000, when he sent several acoustic demos to Gene Shay, host of the Folk Show at 88.5 WXPN. Shay became an instant fan and started booking the band at Philadelphia venues including the North Star Bar. After landing a live performance on Shay’s show, James made the mistake of playing accompanied by a full drums & bass line-up, not aware of the acoustic-based folk format. After the performance and misunderstanding, XPN’s interest waned.
Fortunately, his musical karma shifted upon collaborating with songwriter Joshua Pride. “Vocally, he’s the only one I’ve been able to sing with like that and blend with like that. It’s a really unique thing,” says James. The resulting confluence is the Alfred James Band’s 2005 release “Lucky If Easy,” a jubilant collection of guitar and cello chamber pop that perfectly compliments both early Duncan Sheik and Sufjan Stevens’ tribute album to Illinois (with that great pun title “Come on Feel the Illinoise”). The album navigates boldly through life’s joys and hardships, acknowledging storm clouds on the horizon. However, the voyage ultimately lands in safe waters, illuminated by inspirational rays of glistening sunshine.
The ambitious title track, “Lucky If Easy,” chosen because it was “the most co-written,” according to James, achieves spine-tingling moments early on. The a cappella intro seamlessly meshes James’s and Pride’s identical voices only to give way to the pulse of insistently strummed guitar chords. After a few gears changes, it launches into full orbit with a frenzied cello solo. Exploring themes of disempowering bitter words by embracing surrounding light, “Easy” rapidly touches down in a three-point landing.
Another lynchpin moment is the dramatic “Regina.” The track is actually written about James’ great-grand-uncle, a published poet who began to falter with advanced age. His father took the uncle to the Regina Nursing Center for admission where, outside, was a statue of the Virgin Mary. The lyrics refer to the conversations his uncle had with the statue (“Oh Regina/All along the way you give me strength/You carry me home”). Even more gut wrenching, his uncle suffered heart failure before he was admitted and Alfred played the song at his bedside before he died.
Considerably more joyful is the track “Eloise,” written by Pride for his baby daughter. He announces his joy in the first line (“This is a joyful song/I’ve been waiting for this so long/But I don’t want to sing it by myself/I’ve got food and health and most of all Love/Now, I have you”). The album also boasts an instrumental, “Brother,” which gently rolls picked acoustic guitar chords with cello melody in a dance of the sublime.
Another track without lyrics is “Company Time.” However, “Time” is no instrumental, rather a blistering country satire about “sitting on the throne” in a restroom at work. James’ father, Edward, even contributes a few “yeehaws” for good measure.
While “Lucky” is the band’s only studio release to date, it hasn’t affected AJB’s live touring momentum and expanding fan base. They have appeared at numerous East Coast colleges including Rutgers University (twice) and Westminster Choir College (six times). They also had the opportunity to tour Greece and Turkey with the Philadelphia Boy’s Choir and Chorale with director and longtime friend Jeffrey Smith. The band accompanied the choir by day and played its own gigs at night.
The band made their national television debut on CN8’s “Backstage with Barry Nolan” while also being named one of XM Satellite Radio’s top 27 unsigned artists of the year in 2007. They also opened for Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dave Mason at the Milford Music Festival. Adding to their credibility, various band members have played with artists as diverse as Kanye West and Willie Nelson. Part of the live success is maintaining a steady influx of new material to present to new audiences. One favorite appearing in demo format on their website, alfredjamesband.com, is “Poseidon.”
“It’s a really up and crazy song — a creation bit that I made up,” says James. “When they were forming Athens it was either between Athena or Poseidon to be their patron god. I saw Poseidon as an angry kind of dude. I thought in my mind, ‘What would make him so angry?’ That’s how the lyrics to the song came up.”
James is so enthusiastic about “Poseidon” that the band actually attempted to play it at the Temple of Poseidon while on tour in Athens, Greece. However, they were stopped by security and had to settle for playing the song outside of the gift shop at the bottom of the mountain instead.
Another fascinating track is the hypnotic instrumental, “Sleep,” which appears as the first track on the band’s MySpace site. The piece was originally composed as a chorale by Eric Whittaker based on the Robert Frost poem “On a Snowy Evening.” James transcribed it to cello. It took four months to record in 600-plus takes, multi-tracked eight times.
Another time-consuming issue is the question of when to finally record and release a second album. James, a producer himself, runs his own recording studio, Silvertone Studios in Ardmore, PA. He has 15 tracks waiting, but he says, “The whole second album has been kind of a conundrum for me. I don’t want it to be a slap dash, let’s-get-it-out-of-here kind of second album. I want it to be something meaningful. We worked so hard and were so meticulous on that first album. It’s like, ‘Wow, am I going to put myself through that again? And if so, how am I going to get help?’ I think it’s going to be at least a year and a half. I feel like recording an album is a magical process and you have to have the right people involved at the right time. We’re still trying to find the right people to help make this album.”
However, the right people James is convinced about are his current bandmates: bassist Jethaniel Nixon, guitarist Avery Coffee and percussionist Daveed Korup.
“Everybody has this romantic, idealized notion about what a band should be — just four guys going to ends of the earth for each other. For me it’s been more of a project. It’s been (about) the best musicians I can find and friends of mine who are willing to come out and help me create this product, and who believe enough in the music to do it with me,” he says.
So perfection and dedication are the ultimate rewards for James, who knows all his efforts have paid off so far. “What makes me the happiest is when I’ll be in a situation and the record will be on and I won’t know who it is. And for a brief second, before I recognize it, I think, ‘hey this sounds cool, who is this?’ For me that’s just so gratifying, it’s the biggest testament when I look back and say `hey was this a good endeavor or not?’ That’s when I’m the happiest. Every single track we put blood, sweat, and tears into.”
Sounds for SAVE, Saturday, July 5, 3 to 8 p.m, Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater, Community Park North, junction of Route 206 and Mountain Avenue. Benefit concert for S.A.V.E. animal shelter of Princeton. The Alfred James Band, Sarah Donner, Like Train and Taxis, Ralph Colombino from the Remnants, and the Arthur Colombino Band. Donations invited. Dog chew bones, large rawhides, paper towels, sponges, cat litter, dog and cat food, antibacterialhand soap, laundry detergent, latex gloves, garbage bags, glass cleaner, and cash are needed. A second benefit concert takes place on Saturday, August 23. Free. www.artscouncilofprinceton.org or 609-924-8771.