Since 1989, Joe Bell and his Stinging Blades have been pleasing and scaring the beejesus out of the great local unwashed masses with a blend of hellhound blues, old-school R&B, and deep dish soul. Bell is a whirling, twisted shaman who can yodel like Tarzan, howl like the Wolf, and croon like Eddie Arnold with the soul of Tyrone Davis. To add to the spectacle, Bell has an array of boneless dance moves scary enough to make Twyla Tharp blush and Bob Fosse run for cover.
In person, Bell and his Blades mesmerize the faithful with an array of makeovers, including Van Morrison channeling Tarzan summoning Cheetah in the midst of “Cleaning Windows,” rolling around on Wolf’s bloody “Killing Floor” run through an Electric Flag filter, delivering a passel of throat-searing soul on Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It,” and swamping up the Dan Penn-penned Muscle Shoals window-rattling, door-slammer classic “You Left the Water Running,” covered by Pickett, Otis Redding, and Sam and Dave.
But when it comes time to record, Bell and the boys lay down all originals that stand up to their iconic cover choices. Their latest, Let Heaven and Nature Sing, features 16 cuts co-written by Bell with help from bassist Chuck Taylor and guitarist Dick McPhail that wobble all over the street. “Queen of Hearts” sounds like Springsteen fronting the Kentucky Headhunters describing an Alice in Wonderland trip. Bell and company offer up a prayer for peace on “Roll in Freedom,” McPhail’s guitar providing a slippery surface for the roll-out as Bell exhorts his audience to “Kneel down and plant some kindness … Pick the tree then / Sink your teeth, go all in.”
Bell gives a shout-out to a couple of his favorite local haunts, honoring Durham, North Carolina’s Blue Note Grill on “Down at the Grill,” where Bell confesses he goes to “Pound down a few to the sound of a burning guitar / Float to the floor and I dance ’til I can’t dance no more.” Chapel Hill’s most notorious rural rollicking roadhouse bar gets a nod with the sinister, swampy “Rockin’ at the Kraken”: “Little left of center, but right at home,” Bell avows, located “On the west side where the rambunctious roam,” home to “Stinging Blades shack-shaking shing-a-ling, Second Line parade.”
“I Like What I Like” is a reefer madness excursion with hokum roots, delivered big-band style with Bell dropping in some bluesy harp on top. After a burst of sativa-conjured psychobabble to loosen up the pipes: “Hubba hubba hooba, give a dog a tuba / Hubba hubba how, give a cat a cow / Nick nack paddy whack give a goose a Cadillac / Seven monkeys in the back eatin’ chicken chow,” Bell finally gets down to his stoned munchie fantasy: “I got a lip lock down on a pork chop / Butterbeans, collard greens cooked up with a streak o’ lean.”
Bell’s lip lock on local bar band greatness has seen him grazing on territory from the wilds of Pittsboro to caves, caverns, and oyster bars from Chapel Hill to Raleigh in search of a groove to wallow in. Anytime you come across him layin’ down a soulful puddle, make sure you splash some on you for a mighty satisfying healing feeling.