Just how many great blues players are there in Chicago? We've all heard of the Buddy Guys, the Albert Collinses, the various Kings, Walkers, and Williamses. But unless you’re a real aficionado that's about as far as it goes. But if you were to stop there you'd only have scratched the surface of what's out there.
I've been fortunate to have the recent opportunity to be introduced to a bunch of players — I can't understand why these people aren't household names. Piano players whose fingers dance across keys, guitar players who make you realize Eric Clapton is limited, drummers who have the beat so ingrained that it's the sound of their blood coursing through their veins, bassists who tap into the pulse of the world, and harmonica players who wail the sorrow of every broken heart the world has seen.
Does that sound like hyperbole? Well it isn't as far as I'm concerned and each new disc I hear only confirms that feeling. Delmark Records has released a new DVD, Gettin' Up Live featuring the father-son duo of Carey and Lurrie Bell, recorded live on two separate occasions in clubs, and in the private setting of son Lurrie's house. After watching this DVD I can say here are two more players who can be added to that list of folk whose names should be known the world over, but somehow most of us have remained oblivious to their existence.
In late June of 2006, 70-year-old Carey had a stroke, fell, and broke his hip, but four weeks later he was on stage at Rosa's Lounge in Chicago blowing his harmonica and singing like nothing had happened. The only sign of anything untoward was the fact he remained seated throughout the night, and his casual mention of having been sick and his legs were "broken", as in not working.
Just showing up was amazing enough as it was but he wasn't going be satisfied with that. The second song on the disc, the title track "Gettin' Up" was written only the night before by Carey in his hotel room in honour of the occasion of his being able to get up on stage with his son. "I'm down but I'm going to get up again" he sings in one of those passionate deep south blues voices we've come to expect from a certain generation of blues men.
It's one of the great mysteries of the world that a singing voice can rasp like sandpaper and sound as mellow as aged whisky straight from the cask all in one breath. Carey Bell's voice is one of those wonders; deceptively soft, yet so potent that it cuts through the noise of a Chicago bar and reaches all those who want to hear. Carey Bell doesn't need to shout to make himself heard, and he has the confidence to just put it out there as is without ornamentation.
Then there is his harmonica playing, like his singing deceptively simple, with no obvious ornamentation, but complete mastery over the instrument. Here again he takes a less is more approach and goes right to the heart of the matter. His harmonica playing reaches down inside of a song, finds the heart, and shows it to the audience.
Of course he can also do the fancy fun stuff as well, as he shows on another one of his compositions, "Low Down Dirty Shame." He and his son Lurrie start exchanging licks from harmonica to guitar. At first Carey would play a bar or two on his harmonica, then Lurrie would respond with the guitar. It sounded for all the world like the old call and response singing a gospel tune.
You know that saying about the nut not falling too far from the tree? Well in this case Carey's oldest son Lurrie (oldest of fifteen children) has not only landed right beside his dad, but his root system has been fed from the same source. Lurrie isn't one of these guys who thinks the more notes you're able to play in a second defines your quality as a guitar player — it's which notes you play and what you do with them what matters.
I've said it before and I'll say it again — to me the sign of a great guitar player is his or her willingness to play higher up on the fret board near the tuning pegs – the deeper notes – during leads. Lurrie is one of those great players who can and will do a lead up there as exciting and twice as moving as anything today's guitar heroes can manage.
The other thing that struck me about his playing was his ability to play rhythm at the same time while playing a lead. While he's plucking out the tune on his fret board, he is somehow keeping the tempo heard at all times. That may not sound that impressive, but think about how many lead players you've ever seen be able to do that simultaneously, let alone play rhythm at all.
There's always something special about hearing a parent and a child play together. They each have an almost instinctual response to what the other is doing and are able to react to every nuance, note, and idea created by the other without thinking. This was especially obvious between Carey and Lurrie on the last four tracks of the DVD that were shot in Lurrie's living room.
Seeing the two men sitting side by side on the couch playing together one couldn't help notice the communication between them; it was almost like an electrical cord or telegraph wire was running between them. Lurrie didn't react to what his father did, instead they would make transitions simultaneously even though there was no way either of them could have anticipated what the other was doing.
Gettin' Up Live is a remarkable performance disc in a lot of ways, from the marvelous back up bands that played with Carey and Lurrie at both gigs, to the talent of the two men. Both the sound and picture quality of the disc live up to the level of music on display, with the sound being offered in stereo, surround 5.1, and DTS. The special features were limited to a short interview with each of the men, but they were nice little pieces that were shot in Lurrie's family home with his wife Susan Greenberg and his three children present.
The very last song on the disc is Lurrie singing a beautiful rendition of the traditional gospel tune "Stand By Me". This isn't to be confused with the Ben E. King popular song of the same title, as the lyrics are far more devotional: "Stand by me Lord, help me bear this heavy load." Lurrie sang on July 28, 2006 with his wife and children watching.
At the end of the press materials included with the DVD a note has been added in bold type: Dedicated to Susan Greenberg (1963 – 2007). At some point between the filming of this disc its release this year, Lurrie Bell's wife Susan passed away. The last song Lurrie sang on the disc takes on a horrible new meaning with our knowledge of the sadness that is to come for the happy people seen in those frames.
You can see some of Susan Greenberg's legacy at her website "Reaching For The Light" where her beautiful photographs of blues musicians, including her husband, are on display. For what little it may mean coming from a total stranger, I offer my condolences and sympathy to Lurrie, his young children, and the rest of his family. Truly you have been given a heavy load to carry.