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At age 28 London decided that touring with a reggae band was not for him, and he interpreted that as a sweeping dissatisfaction with playing music. Looking back he now thinks his unhappiness stemmed more from a clash of personalities and lifestyles. Whereas he once envied, even tried to compete with, Bahama Mama's charismatic keyboard player, he is now more comfortable with his laid-back style of performing. "It's more demanding, only in another way," says London. "You don't jump up on stage and flash your dreadlocks around, but you do have to sit there and connect with people."
On New Year's Eve in South Beach, London was far from flashy. He wore black jeans and a button-down shirt and sang with sincerity and understated emotion. Dave Cambest, who chairs the local-performers selection committee for the South Florida Folk Festival, says that "James has a unique way, even if [the song is about] something he did, of making the audience feel like they are with him doing it."
When asked about London, other members of South Florida's folk community praise his expertise on the guitar and the intelligence and intensity of his lyrics, which, at times, can be tough to make sense of. In "Road Not Taken," for example, he sings: "The camel passes through the needle's eye/Fiction is true and the truth is a lie."
"James' songs are very cerebral, and they go over my head," quips Michael Stock, who has featured London on his WLRN-FM (91.3) Folk and Acoustic Music Show and is one of the competition judges.
"His lyrics are very forthright and clever without being strained. And the harmonic structure of his music I find intriguing. He uses some chords I've never discovered," says Webb, who thinks London has a very good chance of winning Saturday. "His songs are many grades above most of the songs out there."
For London the competition is a personal challenge, a way to push himself and his music beyond the occasional solo gig and win a bigger audience. The gift certificate would also help pay for a CD he's been working on for years and is close to completing. He has already lined up dates at coffeehouses in western Broward County over the next couple of months and is planning to work with Webb on songs they hope will be covered by better-known musicians.
Realism, maturity, and the demands of fatherhood have tempered the dreams of stardom London once had. He doesn't intend to give up psychology to go on tour, but if the bigwigs of the music industry were to come calling, he wouldn't turn them away. "I'm still open to miracles, but certainly not counting on them or needing them," London says. Trying to categorize his music, which he doesn't consider folk in the traditional sense, he smiles mischievously and offers, "I'd like to be the niche where, when people hear it, they say, 'This sounds like James London.'"
The South Florida Folk Festival runs Saturday and Sunday, January 16 and 17, at Easterlin Park, 1000 NW 38th St., Oakland Park. Advance tickets cost $16 for adults, $9 for teenagers. Prices at the gate are $10 per day for adults, $5 per day for teenagers. Children under 13 get in free. For more detailed information, see "Concerts For the Week" or call 954-922-9885.