Joe Bell and the Stinging Blades – Slow River (CD Review)
“I’m just a no-count hippie,” Stinging Blades frontman Joe Bell offers as a statement of purpose, adding that the secret of his longevity is “don’t work too hard.” But anybody who has seen Bell lead his raucous bar band for the last decade and a half would disagree. Bell and the Blades have been putting their energetic, unique take on r&b, soul and blues since 1989 around Chapel Hill, N.C. With covers ranging from Tyrone Davis “Turning Point” to Howlin Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor” with a side trip to N’Awleans for Professor Longhair’s “Hey Little Girl” and Jesse Hill’s “Ooh Pah Pah Doo” and an electrifying take on Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It,” Bell and the Blades keep the dance floor jammed with an eclectic mix of interpretive dancers, not be outdone by Bell himself, who morphs into a rubber legged soulman at the first downbeat, whirling and spinning like a man possessed.
There’s plenty of action going on in the band’s cover interpretations as well. It’s always fun to watch first time Blades viewers’ heads snap around and jaws drop when Bell starts yodeling like Eddie Arnold in the middle of Van Morrison’s “Cleaning Windows.” Once you get over the incongruity of it, it works well in the song, an extension of Van’s tendency to scat taken to the next level.
But when it’s time to go into the studio, Bell uses only originals, as he did on his ’08 debut Gizzards and Livers and his latest, Slow River. With the current lineup of Bell, twin lead guitarists Dick MacPhail and Bill McCarthy, bassist Tracy Wieback and drummer Ed Mezynski, Slow River incorporates all the ingredients of the covers they do live relocated to original compositions. MacPhails’s son Joe adds keys on some vintage M3 and C3’s.
“Mel’s Place” is a swampy, bayou country ode to a transplanted slice of Cajun country in Durham, Mel Melton’s Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse. Melton’s harp wails and Bell clucks around on his for a spell before declaring his intentions to drink whisky, shake and shimmy, flirt with the women and do the dirty bop out on the dance floor.
Dick McPhail’s instrumental “South Chatham Strut” gives everybody a chance to shine, with a melody loosely loping around Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” with MacPhail’s jazzy phrasing against McCarthy’s Southern rock riffs as Mezynski drops in funky Charlie Watts licks just behind the beat and Bell’s harp blatting out James Cotton waaahs over Wiebacks throbbing bassline.
The title cut, a MacPhail/ Bell collaboration, shows Bell at the top of his soulman persona, Don Covay style, backed by a gospel chorus of Blades and Shannon Dancy. Bell sells it so well on record you can envision him down on his bloody knees sobbing into the mic as a blue spot washes over him.
Bell throws on an Omar Dykes vocal cloak for “Abandon Hope,” a voodoo-soaked, low crawlin backwater warning about what life has in store for the unwary or non mojo- protected traveler.
Just like in their live show, there’s a little something here for everybody. And just like Joe Bell, you can dance to it. Maybe not as good, but you’ll still enjoy it.
By Grant Britt