Bryan Lee, blind since the age of eight, has been plying his trade on Bourbon Street for some twenty years now, including a fourteen-year house gig at The Old Absinthe House in the heart of the French quarter, where he packs the joint five nights a week. So it's safe to assume he knows his way around both the blues and the guitar. Yet despite seven previous albums, he's somehow never quite made it into the upper echelon, the blues elite. Perhaps it's due in part to a rather personal, idiosyncratic approach to the blues. Or maybe it's just been a lack of marketing; Montreal's Justin Time records have an enviable and admirable roster of artists, but they're a relatively small label with, one presumes, a limited promotional budget.
"Six String Therapy," produced by Duke Robillard and recorded at his own Mood Room studio, may be the one that finally gets him the recognition so long overdue. Backed by Duke's crack band, featuring "Sax" Gordon and Doug James on brass, Bruce Katz on keys, bassist Jesse Williams and drummer Mark Teixeira, Bryan offers up a dozen tracks steeped in swampy N'Awlins grooves, all punctuated by his lean, piercing leads. Instrumentally Duke stays in the background on this one, content to supply rhythm throughout.
From Paul Gayten's "You Better Believe It" to Dave Bartholemew's "Go On Fool" and "Bumpity Bump," B. B.'s "Beautician Blues" to Bryan's own "Little Prince" (one of two originals), the disc jumps and swings like mad. In that, Duke's hand is clearly evident; this is the territory he routinely mines so well. Bryan's other contribution, the 10-minute title song, seems a bit out of place, both funkier and more modern sounding. The closer, "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You," is an inspired choice; while everything before it (except that title track) has owed more than a little to jazz (if only in the way it swings), this one goes deep, showing Bryan's got the chops to handle much more than straightforward blues belting. His phrasing is comparable to Duke's, though his voice has a somewhat more boyish quality, not at all unappealing but rather surprising for someone who's been around as long as he has.
Bryan's guitar works leans to the slightly pinched quality of fellow Crescent City fretman Snooks Eaglin, featuring short busts of fury rather than the extended and rather more leisurely soloing Duke might have employed.
Why so much mention of Mr. Robillard when the disc is in Bryan's name? Simply put, his presence as both producer and bandleader looms large here. That, of course, is a good thing, not bad. Duke seems to be everywhere these days, and were he a lesser artist, his ever-increasing ubiquity might be cause for concern; fortunately he's possessed of impeccable taste, and he's done much for Mr. Lee on this outing. That's not to slight Bryan in the least; this is a fine disc, but whether it represents a new direction in his career, we'll just have to wait and see.
In the meantime, this one's great - highly recommended indeed!
Justin Time Records
5455 rue Parc, suite 101
Canada H4P 1P7
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This review is copyright © 2002 by John Taylor, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.
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