It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International  |  Oct. 2, 2002 at 4:22 PM
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Blues guitarist and vocalist Bryan Lee has been one of the top attractions on Bourbon Street in New Orleans for the past 20 years. Tourists from all over the world trek to see the blind, burly showman do his thing, and a steady stream of musicians have joined him onstage, from Eric Clapton and Little Richard to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Sting.

One of Lee's most significant jam sessions came when the 13-year-old Louisiana guitar phenom Kenny Wayne Shepherd made his New Orleans debut sitting in with Lee. Shepherd now calls Lee "Godfather."

Lee's new album, "Six String Therapy" (Justin Time) is the best studio album of his career. Produced by another veteran guitarist, Duke Robillard, the record showcases Lee's rich tone and wide blues vocabulary rather than his pyrotechnics as a single-note soloist.

Though there are plenty of hot moments, they never go on for longer than it takes to make the point.

The 59-year-old Lee was born in Two Rivers, Wis., and suffered as a child from a degenerative eye disease and that left him sightless by the time he was 8-years-old. Reared on the early rock and blues tunes he listened to on the radio, Lee got his start playing rhythm guitar in a local Wisconsin band, the Glaciers, covering 1950s rockers and jump blues tunes, then later the Chicago blues repertory.

In the bitter cold January of 1982 Lee left Wisconsin for New Orleans, where he set up a band called the Jump Street Five and found steady work. Lee was a fixture at the Old Absinthe House Bar, one of the best music joints on Bourbon Street during the era (Marva Wright was another regular at the Absinthe House).

A few years ago the place was razed overnight by unscrupulous developers despite its landmark status and turned into a frozen daiquiri stand, forcing Lee to search for another home base. He has bounced around several clubs in the quarter since then, including the Old Opera House and the 544 Club (which gets a shout-out here during "Shipyard Blues").

These days Lee's live performances are usually trio gigs, which makes "Six String Therapy" a welcome change of pace because you can hear Lee playing and singing with a full band.

Instead of just another fast-finger showcase on standard blues fare, this session shows off a lot more of the subtlety in Lee's approach on a wide range of material, meticulously arranged and produced by Robillard, whose work with Roomful of Blues put him in great position to oversee this kind of a project.

Robillard recruited Sax Gordon on tenor saxophone and Doug James on baritone and tenor to add soul and texture to New Orleans barnburners like "Go On Fool" and "Bumpity Bump" -- both written by Dave Bartholomew for Smiley Lewis -- and the sly Louis Jordan romp "Three Handed Woman," among other tracks.

Lee is a great B.B. King-style vocalist as well, and he does a masterful job on "Just Like a Fish," the "Mother Earth" recasting "You May" and B.B.'s own "Beautician Blues." Bruce Katz lays several fine piano choruses against the horns in the break on "Just Like a Fish."

The centerpiece of the record is a slow, thick, funk blues, Lee's own "Six String Therapy." Lee also wrote "The Little Prince" for the session, which is dedicated to his infant godson Cameron Jakobe.

After an album's worth of classic takes on blues R&B, the set closes out with a sultry reading of the memorable standard "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You," done here as a T-Bone Walker tribute.

"Six String Therapy" is a career high point for Lee and a welcome addition to Louisiana's rich musical history.

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