LIVE: McKinley James @ the Ale House, 1/14/18
Review and photographs by Ed Conway
The first time I saw McKinley James he was just 14 years old and already a phenomenal guitar player. Being among his first gigs, he only lacked a commanding stage presence, as he would turn to his drummer and father, Jason Smay, for guidance as to moving the show along. Also, the fact that he was warming up a sold-out crowd at The Hangar for Smay’s other band, JD McPherson, was daunting enough by itself.
Skip ahead a couple of years, and McKinley is not just an even better guitarist, but he now commands the stage. It’s his show to set the pace and tone, and at his recent show at Troy’s Ale House he did it well. His father is still keeping the beat, but he is now joined by another McPherson band member, Raynier Jacildo, on the Hammond complete with a full size Lesley speaker. Rounding out the band was local fave Ian Carlton on bass.
With a name like McKinley James, one would imagine evoking memories of the blues legend of the same name – McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters – and you would be right. McKinley is solidly steeped in the old blues tradition. Sprinkling in songs by such blues stalwarts as Bobby “Blue” Bland (“That’s the Way Love Is”) and Junior Wells (“Little by Little”). Even his originals “You’re the One” and “Two Timing Baby” are solidly steeped in the old blues tradition. McKinley was also adept at soul with The Intruders’ “Cowboys to Girls” and Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind.” It’s hard to pick a favorite, but one of the highlights for me, however, was Link Wray’s “Turnpike USA.”
The entire 26-song set was peppered with solid guitar-based soul, blues and rock songs, but Jacildo, a highly sought after keyboard player in his own right, made his presence known throughout the night with the kind of thundering solos that can only come from a Hammond organ, and, he got a turn in the spotlight with Booker T’s “Red Beans and Rice.”
It has been great to see McKinley’s growth over the years, and he has had some wonderful mentors over the years. From his father and his father’s musical mates from the Hi-Risers, Los Straitjackets and JD McPherson, to performing with and starring in Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood” and “Record Year” videos. Although he’s still just 16 years old, which is easy to forget, he has a maturity that generally comes with age. I’m looking forward to where he goes from here.