Good Luck Man
For a musician with his blues pedigree and historical stature, Carey Bellís presence on record is remarkably underwhelming with just a sprinkling of albums over the past 40 years. His current association with Alligator seems to be redressing that injustice. For all but the most neophyte blues fans, biographical notes should be superfluous. Suffice to say that not many living harpmen were tutored by Little and Big Walter or were sidemen for Robert Nighthawk, Magic Sam and Muddy Waters, among others. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that a new Carey Bell album is a newsworthy occasion.
The line-up for this session includes long-time guitar associate Steve Jacobs (who also appeared on Bellís Mellow Down Easy on Blind Pig), Junior Wells sideman Johnny Iguana on piano and Chicago veteran Johnny B. Gayden on bass. And while there is a not-surprising rock-guitar edge, the producers have wisely left plenty of room for Bellís trademark sensual complexity and Delta-based blues.
Bell is perhaps the bluesí best living practitioner of the chromatic harp, and here he gets lots of chance to show off. On "Hard Working Woman," for example, Bell not only demonstrates a gift for sensitive songwriting but his chromatic accompaniment is equally emotionally wrenching. The song concerns the plight of a female Georgia cotton worker ("nothing but a manís slave") who better bring home some bread every Friday ("if she donít, heíll go upside her head"). It is followed by a raucous stomp ("Bell Hop") in which Bell lets out all the stops on the diatonic for some classic Chicago 12-bar blues. As has been remarked by many other critics, Bell, like his mentor Walter Horton, is a master of tone and dynamics.
Bell contributes six of his own compositions, and his covers include Johnny Youngís "Sleeping With the Devil" and Walter Hortonís "Hard Hearted Woman." Bellís brilliant harp workout on the latter is alone worth the price of admission. And for gutbucket blues lovers, he delivers seven minutes of torment on "Teardrops."
Bellís voice, never an instrument of great range, has deteriorated noticeably in the past decade but certainly not to the point of distraction. And while my personal preference is for son Lurrie Bellís more workingman guitar accompaniment, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise highly welcomed recording by Carey Bell. Both die-hard Chicago bluesters and less traditional listeners will find much to like here.
ó Jack Oudiz