Chris Bell | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Chris Bell


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Guitarist Chris Bell's training reveals few clues that he'd eventually become a bluesman: while majoring in art and music at UMass Amherst, he took a jazz workshop with tenor sax outcat Archie Shepp, and later studied guitar with prog rocker Tony MacAlpine. But since the early 90s he's been living and playing in California, and by now he's a mainstay on the Los Angeles-area blues circuit. Born in 1962 in Washington, D.C., and raised between Massachusetts and Germany (where his father, African-American studies professor Bernard Bell, taught for a spell), Bell cites Hendrix and Ernie Isley as childhood guitar heroes. But to my ears the obvious point of reference for his blues style is Albert King: rather than exhaust himself with showy virtuosity, he focuses the full heat of his passion on every note, all the while keeping a sure eye on the trajectory of his solo. His keening tone melts into a thick purr on ballads, and his leads unfurl with a linear sureness, inflected by broadly arcing swoops and swirls. One of Bell's trademarks is to conclude a solo with a dip back into the middle register, creating an effect like a musical semicolon--as though his statement weren't complete but instead just waiting to be revisited. His current disc, Hell Is Too Hot for Me (Silver Bridge), is a mostly up-tempo outing that demonstrates his facility with roadhouse-style barn burners ("Can't Keep a Good Man Down"), double entendre novelty tunes ("Deli Man"), and topical blues (the workingman's lament "Two Jobs"), but the album's real treat is a haunted-sounding slow blues, "Hate It When You Lie," on which Bell's guitar leads quiver with aching sensuality and his vocals thicken into a tense rasp that conveys both desperation and determination. Friday, September 13, 10 PM, Reservation Blues, 1566 N. Milwaukee; 773-645-5200. Saturday, September 14, 8 PM, Filter, 1585 N. Milwaukee; 312-427-2610.

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