Residential Address: Mel & James Hold Casual Communion in the Jade Room
With talent, technology, and the Holy Ghost
Amongst the fashionable clientele and decor at C-Boy's upstairs enclave the Jade Room, a red neon high upon the wall quietly demands, "For Lovers Only." The placement of a single, dirty, high-heeled shoe right next to the sign – like a lost token from somebody's wild night on the town, looking for anything but love – gives the statement a humorous undertone.
A stunning, almost holy picture of a mid-20s Aretha Franklin veiled in white lace sits firmly above a vintage jukebox, perfectly centered behind the two men that I'm here to see. If Our Lady of Youthfulness Aretha is the Jade Room patron saint, Mel Davis and James Lott are definitely filling in as her apostles. Fitting, since the two met at the Freedom Home Baptist Church, where Lott is a minister.
Lott knew of Davis' longtime history playing saxophone and harmonica with the Blues Specialists – who've held down Fridays at the Continental Club for over two decades. Lott already possessed his own rich musical history of 42 years touring the gospel circuit with his family band, the Gospel Stars. But something inside the guitarist sought something more, or at least something different.
So one day after Mass, you might say divine intervention compelled him to approach Davis about, and I quote, "hookin' up and let's see what we do."
Davis had already been presiding over Thursday nights at the Jade Room for over a year with nothing more than a Roland Aerophone electronic wind instrument and a cellphone loaded with bass and drum backing tracks created with an app called SessionBand. When he finally invited Lott to join the tech-supported set one night, the chemistry was undeniable. Combining the proverbs of "good things come to those who wait" and "God helps those who help themselves," the two musical messengers became one, South Congress now their pulpit.
The environment is as casual as they are: never demanding your attention, but also never letting it go. Timing, talent, and maturity over flash and amplitude create a perfect environment for catching up with a friend, a first date, or maybe even some passionate necking in the dark corner booth (all three of which I saw in the same night).
Through it all, Mel & James never miss a beat or cue. Nor do they look bothered or annoyed that all eyes aren't focused exclusively on them throughout their set. So comfortable with their talent and love for playing, they don't mind the sound of conversations looming just underneath.
"I love to make people smile," Lott expresses after the set. "When people are happy, when people are smiling, that gives me that energy to do what I do."
Witnessing this genuine balance of humility and talent is impressive, almost as impressive as their nearly telepathic sense of timing. The duo launches into songs quickly and effortlessly, sometimes without even so much as the title being said. Davis simply calls out the key, and they're off.
"James has a fantastic ear, probably one of the best ears I've ever played with," says Davis. "It doesn't make any difference what style of music we're playing, he just hears it and he can play it."
Lott's fingers dance up and down the fretboard like a cat in traffic during rush hour – skillfully yet softly working the strings to make his guitar sometimes magically sound like a keyboard, or even taking leads with his instrument behind his head. All of this with Davis patiently sitting next to him in a dignified manner, keeping everything on track with his own impressive fingerwork on the futuristic-looking digital horn.
When I ask Lott what he enjoys most about playing with Davis, he smiles and shares: "On the gospel side of things, you don't have a lot of leeway; you have to stick to the foundation. When I play with Mel, I'm free to do whatever I want to do.
"It gives me energy. We feed off each other and it sends a vibe through us."
Mel & James hope to capture that vibe with a full album release of original material on the former's label, Ariel Records, in 2023.
Mel & James play Thursdays @ the Jade Room at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, 10pm