Lurrie Bell's last outing, 2012's Devil Ain't Got No Music, saw him turning to his gospel roots, the results an absolutely riveting collection. An all-acoustic, primarily solo effort, the intimacy put his gruff vocals and stinging guitar in stark relief.
Blues In My Soul marks Bell's return to the Chicago's venerable Delmark label as well as a return to hard-core urban blues. The results are typically stellar - Bell, son of the late harmonica master and blues icon Carey Bell, is as steeped in the blues as anyone alive, and he's seemingly incapable of a less-than-sublimely soulful performance. He's a true team player, though, so this time out his guitar and voice are less prominent, more a part of the rich musical tapestry.
And what a tapestry it is. With support from the likes of Roosevelt Purifoy on keys, a skin-tight rhythm section (drummer Willie Hayes and bassist Melvin Smith), the vastly underrated Mathew Skoller on harmonica, and a bold, brassy horn section, there's a rich sonic cushion supporting Bell's stabbing, choked guitar and laconic yet always expressive vocals.
Indeed, Bell seems supremely relaxed here. A consummate sideman in his own right, he's content to share the spotlight, and when he does solo it's with seemingly effortless ease. And yet there's no shortage of intensity - Bell is a master of tension and resolution, and his guitar work is endlessly inventive, full of unexpected twists and stabbing lines that somehow reflect Bell's own journey from darkness into light - even when he's delivering the deepest, darkest blues, there's a sense of triumph in every note he plays.
The playlist is generous indeed, with fourteen tracks clocking in at some sixty-six minutes. Covers include two each from T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Rodgers, with additional tracks from Big Bill Broonzy, Little Walter, and Eddy Boyd. Bell contributes two, the soul-searing title track and a spontaneous and heartfelt tribute to the late Magic Slim; Bell received the news of Slim's passing while in the studio.
Apart from the sheer inventiveness of the instrumentalists - both Skoller and and Purifoy are full of surprises, and Bell's guitar work is consistently distinct, concise and compelling - there's nothing terribly surprising here. It's a collection of standards, after all, and songs that borrow from without really building upon the standards.
Yes, it's been done before. But the blues aren't about innovation, they're about expression. As one of the greatest living practitioners of that most expressive of arts, Lurrie Bell is indeed, as BlindedBySound editor Josh Hathaway insists, a National Treasure. It simply doesn't get any better ...