Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Devil Ain't Got No Music
Lurrie Bell
Aria B.G. Records
12 tracks/47:38

In 2007, guitarist Lurrie Bell lost the love of his life, Susan Greenberg, as well as his father, blues harp great Carey Bell, a few months later. Lesser men would never have recovered those devastating blows. With the help of Greenberg's family, Bell started a record label dedicated to their daughter, Aria, and released a solo effort titled Let's Talk About Love, which received high praise from the critics. Bell has since received nominations for several Blues Music awards in addition to being named Living Blues magazine's Artist of the Year in 2008.

His new project finds Bell exploring the depths of human emotion and the conflict between good and evil. For decades blues musicians have struggled with playing the “Devil's music”, since many of them grew up in the church. Bell spent seven years of his childhood in the South playing guitar in churches, four of those years in Alabama with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a preacher. Bell developed a real love for gospel music, which often utilizes music that is often the same as blues, the only difference being that you are singing about the concerns of the heavenly father.

This is a stripped-down project as producer Matthew Skoller keeps the musical support to a minimum, letting focus rest on Bell, who delivers one amazing performance after another. The opening track, “Swing Low”, is a traditional hymn that finds Bell reveling in his faith with Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on percussion and Bill Sims Jr. providing hand claps. The title song is a haunting piece written by Skoller, who plays harp with Smith on drums and Josef Ben Israel on upright bass. Bell's powerful voice convincingly explains that the Devil has everything but music – and that is why his home is such a forsaken place. Smith provides the only accompaniment on Tom Waits “Way Down in the Hole”, with Cynthia Butts contributing an ethereal backing vocal that is the perfect contrast to Bell's muscular vocal.

The program includes two songs composed by the greatest writer of gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey, once known as Georgia Tom, a singer known for his ribald blues tunes. Mike Avery and James Teague's backing vocals on “Search Me Lord” surround Bell and his guitar with heavenly harmonies. They return on “Trouble in My Way”, their contributions punctuated by some magnificent harp playing by billy Branch. Joe Louis Walker joins Bell on “Peace in the Valley”, his slide guitar crying out as Bell quietly pleads for a better world. “It's a Blessing” finds Walker sharing the vocal duties with Bell, who sings with a determined passion while Walker's higher pitched voice matches his slashing licks on slide guitar.

Bell closes with an extended version of the classic  Rev. Gary Davis hymn, “Death Don't Have No Mercy”. It is Bell and his guitar in a moving performance that sharply illustrates how blues and gospel share the same roots. While his guitar playing may be filled with fire and brimstone, his vocals will bring you to heaven's gate.

This CD is uplifting and evocative- Bell is in some sort of a zone where he appears to be driven by a power beyond himself.  And yet he is completely in control throughout the CD, never showing off or flashy in his approach, remaining completely convincing and authentic.  Lurrie demonstrates how restraint can sometimes be more powerful than an “in your face” style of play.  The blues and Gospel go hand in hand here, telling us that the power of God and the darkness of the devil share a place in our humanity.  Lurrie Bell has had his share of devils to battle throughout his career, yet we see that God and the love of family and friends have truly helped him triumph overall.  This is by far the finest album that Bell has given us, with performances that are overwhelmingly inspired.

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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