A concert review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker (firstname.lastname@example.org).
At the end of the gig, Boulevard Music owner Gary Mandell put it best: over a period of 30 years, Bernie Pearl is the only artist he knows of who gets better each time he plays. Following the stunning Somebody Got to Do It, my choice for blues CD of the decade, and its follow up Old School Blues, a two-fer of live electric/acoustic classics, not to mention a performance I was lucky enough to catch last year, I said "You can't get any better than that!". Well, it's a good thing I like huevos rancheros, 'cause I now have a goodly amount of egg on my face. Mandell was right, I was wrong, and Bernie Pearl is SoCal's Segovia of blues.
It was no more than the third song in when my buddy, who caught last year's performance as well, turned to me and said "You gotta be kidding me! This is even better than the last time!", to which I, of course, couldn't help but agree. Pearl came on stage firing on all cylinders, tight as a drum from the very first song, a Roosevelt Sykes number, East Texas Blues, done Mance Lipscomb style. No sooner had he gotten to the third song, a Lightning Hopkins tune, than I noticed his voice was stronger then ever and his playing at zenith…again. The guy is 70, looks like he's 50, and plays as if he were 30. How the hell is he doing it?
Nonetheless, he did it for over two hours. I've never seen a guy play that well and sustain it that impeccably for an entire concert. Many songs were from his CDs and from regular repertoire but, what with the improv Pearl always throws in, they sounded different, new, even more polished than before. The Hopkins number was extremely dexterous and precise, leading into a Pearl original Berlin Rag, written for a play presented at the Gene Autry Theater (Bernie sat in with the orchestra), one of several presented that evening, among then California Hustle a blues form of cat-squirreled Bouree with a serial-and-variations motif.
That form turned up again late in the show when Pearl turned to some Mississippi John Hurt-styled songs he's been working on. One, provisionally and tongue-in-cheekily titled I Ain't Hurt, was an amazing demonstration of just how far intelligent extension can be taken…without a chord change! He fingerpicked a wilderness of morphing transmogrifications without leaving the very bottom of the neck. For Pearl, Mance Lipscomb is the god of blues—and, being a historian of the form, he should know—but Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Hurt, Muddy Waters, and others come in for their accolades in his work, all of it turned to the man's unique "modernist" rewrites preserving the heart and soul of the black form via a very deep understanding of what composes the art.
Word is getting around. There were a lot of new people there who'd heard about Bernie. One guy two seats down turned to me and asked "What do you think of this guy? I heard about him and thought I should check 'im out". My answer was simply that I think Bernie's the best we have and probably the best pure blues guy period. When the gig wound down, the newcomer agreed. It was indeed a stellar performance, and so I repeat my previous advice: if you're coming to Southern California and you're an addict of great music, plan your visit around a Bernie Pearl gig. He plays all over the place (get on his list). And, if you can, also check out Boulevard Music. They have great acts every weekend with some of the best (Katy Moffatt, Bob Brozman, Stephen Bennet, etc.)...but, of course, put Bernie at the head of the list.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society. This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.