In one of those curious pairings seemingly unique to the blues, the Floyd Lee Band has always been as much about the guitar and songwriting skills of Lee’s musical foil, Joel Poluck.
Lee is a 70-something black man who made a living as a doorman in New York for many years. Poluck is young and white, and hails from Canada. Yet together the two have forged a sound steeped in hoodoo, thick with Mississippi mud.
Poluck’s material on the band’s first three discs mined standard blues themes, emphasizing deep grooves rather than flashy ornamentation. His stabbing, succinct guitar provided the perfect counterpoint to Lee’s gruff and grizzled vocals. With Doctors, Devils & Drugs, though, they’ve achieved an entirely new (albeit very dark) level of artistic expression.
This is nothing short of the sound of sheer despair – sorrow and anger in equal measure, an anguished cry in the face of the limitless pain life can inflict on the soul of man. It’s harsh and abrasive, and yet, despite all, there remain glimmers of hope, if only in the warmth of memory and the human need to press on and persevere. It’s music as catharsis, when sound is the only solace in a sea of grief.
To understand the disc, it helps to know that Poluck’s beloved partner, Nella (who painted the package’s cover) succumbed to cancer while preparations were being made to film the sessions that resulted in this disc. It’s her untimely death that overshadows everything here, with Poluck pouring out his pain through song. Take the disc’s opener, “Empty Well” – “Fallin down an empty well / One step closer to hell / I’m one big empty shell / And I’m about to crack,” intones Lee, over Poluck’s brooding, angular guitar. Lee’s gruff, unaffected vocals are the perfect vehicle – as great bluesmen do, he tempers the hurt with an unassailable dignity that somehow makes it all bearable.
It’s not easy stuff, and despite hypnotic grooves that inevitably infect the feet, it’s not the kind of platter likely to liven up a party or sell beer. But it’s as raw and as real and as honest as music could possibly be, and offers genuinely compelling and moving listening. Pay close attention to this one and you’ll emerge a different person – and isn’t that what art is all about?
Utterly mesmerizing, Doctors, Devils & Drugs is nothing short of a masterpiece.