This acoustic/electric twofer from L.A. blues icon Bernie Pearl opens in the best possible way: bare, down home, acoustic, and heartfelt. Though the gentleman in question is white, everything Pearl does is both tribute to and a preservation of ground-level black blues. He's a purist…granted, with very welcome personal interpretation…and steadfastly sticks to the basics, which is what endears him to an impressive Los Angeles following composed of fans, fellow musicians, and industry ears delighted to hear a dying art form so impeccably rendered.
The first disc is all acoustic, much of it solo, while the second is electric in trios and quartets…but don't expect electro-bluesrock a la the Groundhogs, Savoy Brown, or Walter Trout 'cause you ain't agonna git it, Magee. True to his stringent standards, Pearl goes no further than the sort of amplification Les Paul and Chet Atkins began with: simple, unadorned, no bells and whistles, and reliant on the player's own powers for expressive palette. This, however, doesn't mean he can't boogie his ass off or get down in the mud and roothog. On the electric set, Automobile Blues establishes Bernie in a gritty slo-mode, playing lyrical double entendre to sex and mechanics with a diastolic pulse and no-nonsense dark modulations amid a stomp, a very good start indeed.
On the acoustic side, God Moves on the Water, a gospel blues that should have made it into the rock lexicon in the same way Jesus Is Just Alright has, enjoys a spunky resuscitation finger-picked on a steel guitar. It's followed by Bernie's own Berlin Rag, a tune Scott Joplin would've been delighted to hear, then a couple more numbers before climaxing in an 8½ minute version of Rock Me, Mama, which has appeared on innumerable rock discs as Rock Me or Rock Me, Baby. Every other recital has tended to inject lighter fluid into the song, then set it on fire, for which we've all been quite grateful, but Pearl slows it way down to the real deal in a lazy drawl soon given over to equally unhurried leads inevitably ratcheting up but not into smoking white knucklers. It isn't, we find, necessary to beat the listener over the head, subtlety works its own wonders.
The electric disc carries a version of Crosscut Saw in a bit of a rave-up, thanks to Dwayne Smith's sparklingly dancing piano lines, whom Pearl backs out for, in order that the listener be treated to a bit of soloing a la Dr. John. Of course, many of the songs here are extensions, and the guitarist has ample time for his own inimitable axehandle orations. Pearl's perennial Rocks & Gravel Boogie, a song fans will not let a concert end without, bookends Crosscut with guts 'n shuffle. The close-out to the entire smorgasbord is Otis Rush's You Know I Love You and, as Pearl said, he "just had to mess with it". Thank God for that, because we get the most soulful solos of the entire release in it, showing how first R&B and then soul itself came from this classic American art form. During the entire jukebox menu, though, what's most entrancing is the small but significant transmogrification from an acoustic to an electric guitar, where the bluesman's vocabulary tilts to accomodate the pick-ups' more fickle response to plucked strings with, as every player knows, no sound box to add that extra bit of acoustic sustain and fatter sound (although, truth to tell, unless I'm greatly mistaken, Bernie knocked in a bit of phasing, thankfully to make up for the difference). Of course, the three- and four-man formats there drastically imbue the entire sound field with a funkier sweat and pulse as well.
For all its drive, Old School Blues is a trifle mellower than Pearl's riveting Somebody Got to Do It* (to this critic's ear, one of the best blues CDs of the past two decades and, like this one, a must for any aficionado who wishes to hold his or her head up in distinguished company), showing a more contemplative immersion in the mode, one that's been long considering some of the sotto voce backscatter inherent in the blues, respecting the style to be subtler than it first appears. It goes without saying that Bernie Pearl consistently produces some of the most genuine blues in the country, or the world for that matter, and I'd suggest that any blues connoisseur's vacation plans to SoCal should also revolve around catching him in concert - not a difficult feat, as he gigs constantly. Thus, check his website and schedule buying flight tix accordingly. You can thank me later.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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