James Hall is one of the most intense live performers you will ever see. A brilliant songwriter exploring several genres of the last three decades, he has toured with bands as big as Rage Against the Machine, was once signed to a major label and even turned down an offer from the Afghan Whigs. By all rights, he should be famous. But Hall's bad luck has been almost as big as his talent — though not if you ask him.
“I am not a career tragedy," says Hall, who was born in Houston, lives in Atlanta and will be in Dallas this Wednesday opening for Peter Murphy at The Kessler Theater. "People think that I should be big or whatever. But I appreciate artists for their transient beauty. The wise thing is to seize the moment and enjoy it for what it is."
Today, Hall is philosophical about his missed opportunities, a fact that stems in part from having survived a real-life tragedy: In 2005, he lost his home and pretty much everything he owned to Hurricane Katrina. He and his family soon found themselves in Memphis, trying to piece their lives back together alongside many others displaced by the natural disaster.
“Life is a series of consecutive days where you are cheating death,” Hall says, choosing his words carefully. “At some point, catastrophic loss is going to factor in.” Among all the things he lost, he considers the great performances he had on video, an incredible record collection and a bunch of great reviews.
While those artifacts may have been lost, one person who will never forget Hall's precocious talents as a young musician is Jeff Liles. When there was an all-out bidding war from major labels for Hall back in the '90s, Liles — who is now the artistic director at the Kessler — met him in Dallas when he was touring. Liles’ band, Cottonmouth, Texas, eventually toured with Hall.
“Next to Prince, James Hall is the most charismatic and dynamic rock performer I have ever seen,” says Liles. “His skill set is immense. He can front a rock band, play jazz on a trumpet, sing solo with a piano or play Delta blues on an acoustic guitar.”
By the time Liles met Hall, he had already been in and moved on from a band that was signed to a record contract. In the late '80s, Hall was a teenager in a band from Atlanta called Mary My Hope. With peers who were following in the steps of R.E.M. and the B-52’s, Mary My Hope was a bit darker and heavier, taking cues from bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Hüsker Dü and Led Zeppelin. The music even bares a certain similarity to the sound of Jeff Buckley. Songs like “Suicide King” have an interesting dual meaning: Suicide or, simply, a game of cards.
Silvertone Records, which released the Stone Roses’ first album, signed the band, but they split after just one album. Hall started a solo career and two of his bandmates would go on to join the Black Crowes. Along with his explosive live shows, Hall’s 1993 solo album, My Love, Sex and Spirit, generated enough buzz to land him a contract with Geffen.
By 1996, he had relocated to New Orleans and released his major label debut, Pleasure Club. The album is a masterpiece, but it has an edgy, hard rock sound infused with blues and soul that even has moments that are danceable. It may have been a little out of touch with mainstream rock in those times.
Hall toured with Better Than Ezra nationally and Rage Against the Machine overseas. “I considered us peers of the Jesus Lizard,” Hall says, of his live shows. It’s a bold claim, but if you saw him perform in the '90s you know it’s not unreasonable. But without a hit single on the radio or a video in steady rotation on MTV, Pleasure Club was considered a failure.
He was working on his next album when Geffen was going through a power struggle. “You make the record you want to make,” Hall says. “If it doesn’t sell, you better believe you are going to have scrutiny next time it comes to doing a six-figure budget.” Hall’s A&R representative ended up leaving Geffen, which effectively severed his relationship with the label.
Hall eventually rebounded with a new band, Pleasure Club. But with members in Los Angeles and New Orleans, getting it off the ground was no small feat. Michael Jerome, who once played in Dallas-Fort Worth bands the Toadies, Course of Empire and Cottonmouth, Texas, was Pleasure Club’s drummer. Hall believes he may have done his best work with Pleasure Club, but that project was ultimately cut short by Hurricane Katrina.
Thrown into a crisis in the wake of the hurricane, Hall found consolation in the fact that he was still an artist, songwriter, husband, musician and father. He decided to simply focus on being happy.
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“I see all of these things as stuff that I do more than things I am defined by,” he says. “When I was 20-years-old I probably had three interests: music, getting loaded and women. But at 48, that list is lengthy and it continues to grow.”
There was to be yet another opportunity to come Hall's way, this time in 2013 when he was invited to join the Afghan Whigs for their much-anticipated reunion tour. The lengthy tour would have paid well and brought much exposure to Hall, but he declined. “I don’t want to sound like an overtly responsible human being,” Hall says. “But my son was 16 that year.”
Last month, the Whigs' Greg Dulli played the Kessler. When Liles asked him if he had ever heard of Hall, Dulli responded without missing a beat: “James is not only one of the best acts I’ve ever seen, he’s one of the best that I will ever see.” When the kind words were relayed to Hall, he was just happy to hear that Dulli was no longer angry with him.
“I’m pretty fucking happy,” Hall says, laughing. For him, living in the moment matters much more than what might have been. "If I wake up in the morning and hear the birds chirping and I am not enjoying that song, it is no one’s fault but my own.”