Old School Blues
Review By Willard Manus

Bernie Pearl is a relatively unknown L.A. treasure. The veteran bluesman has been plying his trade here for something like forty years, sometimes with his band at major venues like the Long Beach Blues Festival, other times soloing in coffee houses and bars armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar. "You might say I've got a thing going with the blues," he observes while introducing his new CD, OLD SCHOOL BLUES (berniepearl.com).

And what a superb CD it is, one of the finest releases of its kind in many years. Pearl splits his work between acoustic and electric, with a generous sampling of tunes on both. What makes the CD special is not just Pearl's artistry as singer/guitarist, but his uncanny ability to put himself in the shoes of the various bluesmen to whom he pays tribute.

Pearl pulls off quite a feat in this regard, managing to give the flavor and feel of the original while somehow sounding like himself. With his rendition of Goin' Down Slow, for example, Pearl sings it the way Mance Lipscomb, a bluesman and songwriter (and lifelong tenant farmer), first sang it back in his native Texas, with a warm, folksy feel. On the next cut, though, I Be's Troubled), Pearl shifts vocal gears and mimics Muddy Waters' voice back in 1941, when he first recorded the song for Alan Lomax (complete with Delta slide-guitar solo).

Then Pearl channels some of his other favorite artists, such as Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin' Sam and Brownie McGhee, in the latter's case right down to his light, lyrical touch on the guitar, a style he learned while growing up in the Piedmont mountains.

Pearl also contributes an acoustic original--Berlin Rag, an instrumental which showcases his prowess as a player.

On disc two, Pearl switches to electric guitar on all nine cuts, joined by fellow-bandmembers Michael Barry (upright and electric bass), Albert Trepagnier, Jr. (drums) and Dwayne Smith (piano). They've been together for twenty years and their comfort level with each other is palpable: they play with fire, power and precision throughout, whether in the boogie-woogie tradition of Albert King (on Crosscut Saw) or with the New Orleans funkiness of McGhee's If You Lose Your Money. If radio knew talent, Pearl's version would be played endlessly.

Pearl also pays tribute to Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush and Big Boy Crudup on this gem of a CD. He gives them credit, explaining that "in some cases I stayed close to the original, and others I completely rearranged and/or added words, but in no case do we try to exactly replicate anything. The blues is, in fact, about feeling, and everything we've done is to the end of bringing that feeling to the listener."