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Harping on the Blues

Carey Bell
Good Luck Man: Harmonica veteran Carey Bell produces an otherwordly wail.

Photo by Peter Amft

Carey Bell plays a baleful blues harp, spoiling for a fight

By Nicky Baxter

SOME TIME AGO, I had the good fortune to attend a blues show in Oakland featuring ageless-wonder pianist Pinetop Perkins and guitarist Jimmy Rogers; Matt "Guitar" Murphy was also on hand. Everyone appeared to be having a ball, grinning and carrying on--everyone except harmonica player Carey Bell.

The baleful-looking harp veteran added an air of unsettling melodrama to the proceedings. Lanky, ashen-faced and hunched-shouldered, he looked for all the world like a black version of the Addams Family's Lurch. But as scary as Carey appeared, his music was even more sinister. Good Luck Man (Alligator), Bell's new CD, is similarly evil-sounding. Which is as it should be; no matter what anyone says, the blues works best when it is mean and low-down, spoiling for a fight.

The 60-year-old Bell learned his craft firsthand from harp icons Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton, but over the years he has evolved a style unlike any other, and that otherworldly wail I heard in Oakland is fully evident on Good Luck Man. Accompanied by guitarist Steve Jacobs, Bell burns through 14 cuts, six of which are self-penned. The remaining numbers are examples of Bell's most enduring influences, including Little Walter ("I'm a Business Man") and Jimmy Reed ("Good Lover").

The album starts with a juiced-up Muddy Waters number, "My Love Strikes Like Lightning." With solid support from rhythm players Johnny Gayden (bass) and Willie Hayes (drums), Bell's harp brays like a contrary Georgia mule. His abrasive and bullying vocal ("My love is like lightnin' / Strike you like a fallin' tree / It's not a pain to hurt you / But it'll put you in misery") packs a mean kick as well.

The title cut finds Bell in a defiantly optimistic mood; he sounds positively giddy. Although it boasts some excellent harp playing, "Good Luck Man" is the most guitar-oriented track on the album. Steve Jacobs' stinging guitar reiterates Bell's every utterance, while Will Crosby's riffing rhythm guitar (regrettably undermixed) badgers the groove.

"Sleeping With the Devil" and "Double Cross" belie Bell's claim to leading a charmed life. On both, Bell sounds as if all the rabbit feet in the world couldn't rescue him from a world of trouble. "Devil" is an oddity of sorts, starting off with a jaunty quasi-country two-step that is then tempered by Bell's cantankerous harmonica. Johnny Iguana comments on Bell's vocal with rolling Pinetop-like boogie-woogie piano fills.

With "Double Cross," Bell saves his best for last. On this turbocharged instrumental, Bell sets a dizzying pace, showing off his dazzling chops with ear-piercing staccato bursts followed by low, guttural chromatic runs. Though just shy of three minutes, the tune delivers a fount of musical ideas that are taken up, given the once-over, then discarded for another--and another. And when everything is said and done, it's listener--not the harmonica player--who is gasping for breath.

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From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro.

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