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Review: Casey James comes home, proves his mettle

Who was the best North Texas 'Idol'?
Posted 10:20am on Saturday, Jul. 02, 2011

Whether Casey James sells 10 or 10 million copies of his eventual debut album, he'll be just fine.

It was evident again and again Friday night, during his two-hour set at Billy Bob's Texas, a venue James once drove past on the way to gigs at other, smaller, grungier bars. ("I used to play not too far from here, at a lot of places," James observed on stage.) But after a surprise run on the ninth season of American Idol, James, who finished third in the popular singing competition, returns to his former home something of a conquering hero.

And a budding sex symbol: From the moment James walked onstage, the flashbulbs began blanketing the room in a haze of light and the shrieks were unceasing (if you heard "I love you, Casey!" once Friday, you heard it 50 times). Every shake of his mussed blonde hair, every casual grin, every foray to the lip of the stage to wave at fans -- every move elicited screams.

But, there were also songs -- many, many songs, which bears out James's assertion that he's been furiously stockpiling tunes, in an effort to assemble a killer major label debut. James, backed by drums, bass and keyboards, worked through the known compositions (Bulletproof, his co-write with fellow Texan Delbert McClinton; Drive; Let's Don't Call It a Night) and a handful of songs so fresh James read from the lyric sheet at his feet. It gave the evening an air of a songwriter's workshop; a glimpse of a rising star hammering out his ideas and deciding upon his next destination.

Surprisingly, Nashville (where James currently lives) doesn't loom particularly large in James's writing. The singer-songwriter favors smoldering blues, breezy rock tinged with pop and the occasional foray into country; it's a distinctly Texan blend of genres. Signed to a country-centric label (Sony Nashville), James will be competing with shiny-faced pop stars masquerading as country artists, but apart from his easy-on-the-eyes charisma, James has little in common with the performers cluttering CMT. Instead, there's an ache and a soulfulness, inherent in those who treasure the blues, setting his songs apart.

He's also a helluva guitar player, one who instantly loses himself in the sound of the strings beneath his fingers. Dexterous, liquid solos spilled out at the end of several tunes, and James even breathed new life into an acoustic warhorse (John Prine's Angel From Montgomery, which he performed during the encore with his mother, Debra). One got the sense, if there hadn't been another band on the Honky Tonk Stage, patiently waiting its turn to go on, James might've just played all night long.

That exuberance -- the sheer giddiness at getting to play music for a living -- marked this particular homecoming performance as something more than a chance to prove to all of his fans that he is, indeed, working assiduously to secure a long, fruitful career for himself. Casey James has come a long way from the late nights and small crowds of his early days, but he's still got a sizable test ahead of him.

Nevertheless, whether the spotlight grows brighter or fades, he'll be OK. He loves the music with an almost palpable fervor; it's all he needs to get by.

Here's some video I shot of Casey's performance at Billy Bob's Texas Friday night.

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