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Nathan James brings the blues

There wasn't a lot of diversion for a 13-year-old boy growing up pre-video games in the small, agricultural town of Fallbrook, Calif. But rather than resort to delinquency like many other young people, Nathan James taught himself to play guitar.

"It was either that or get in trouble," he says.

Twenty years later, 33-year-old James makes his living playing the blues. The San Diego-based guitarist and his trio, featuring Troy Sandow (harmonica, upright and electric bass) and Marty Dodson (drums), will perform at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at Alex's Plaza Restaurant and Bar, 35 N. Main St., Ashland. (James, Sandow, Dodson and one other musician also form the James Harman Band.)

After graduating from high school, James wet his feet playing with various blues bands before being swept away by internationally known bluesman James Harman, who taught him the ins and outs of the band biz and the blues. James toured with Harman for four years before leaving to pursue an acoustic blues solo career. However, he continues to play with Harman intermittently.

Harman brags that "of the 65 or so great guitar players I've had in my band since the early '60s, Nathan James is easily the No. 1 hands-down standout."

Along with playing solo, James teamed up with harmonica player Ben Hernandez. The pair played as a duo for eight years and, in 2007, took first place in the solo/duo category at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn.

In 2008, Hernandez married and moved to North Carolina, at which point James began the Nathan James Trio. The trio forges a cumulative sound that brings together 1920s acoustic blues, '50s uptown blues and '60s R&B.

"We kind of run the gamut from the 1920s ragtime blues and Blind Blake ... to early James Brown and The Famous Flames," James says. "Basically we pride ourselves in doing justice to the different styles we can do."

The trio plays originals as well as more obscure covers, but all the songs have a distinct, rhythmic quality created by James' handmade washboard guitar. Last summer, James, who can play kazoo, harmonica, washboard and guitar, discovered that if he combined the latter two into one instrument, it created an "almost electric washboard sound."

"Basically, while I strum the guitar, I also wear fingerpicks that rub the washboard at the same time," he explains.

The washboard guitar is only one of several of James' handmade instruments.

Cover to Nathan James' show at Alex's is $5. See www.nathanjames.com or call 541-482-8818.

The Nathan James Trio is (from left to right) Troy Sandow, Nathan James and Marty Dodson. - Photo by Bryan Snyder